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Tuesday, January 15, 2013
W2W4: St. John's vs. Notre Dame

By Kieran Darcy

Here are three things to watch for when St. John's (9-7, 1-3 Big East) plays No. 20 Notre Dame (14-2, 2-1 Big East) on Tuesday at Madison Square Garden.

Tip-off is at 7 p.m., and you can watch the game on ESPN2.

GUT CHECK: It's only mid-January, but this is a critical game for St. John's. The Red Storm are coming off their worst performance of the season, a 67-51 loss to Georgetown on Saturday that was much worse than the final score indicates.

Sophomore forward Amir Garrett said that the Johnnies would come out much hungrier against Notre Dame. We'll see if he was right. At the very least, they need to show their fans more fight than they did in Saturday's lackluster performance.

A win would get them back in the mix in the Big East, with a second victory over a Top 25 opponent on their résume. A loss would land them near the cellar of the conference and make them 0-3 on this Garden homestand.

BRANCHING OUT: St. John's needs a boost, and Jamal Branch could be the player to provide it.

He has appeared in four games since becoming eligible in December, after his midseason transfer a year ago from Texas A&M. His play has been up and down, but he was one of the few Johnnies who looked good against Georgetown, scoring 16 points and making seven of his 11 field goal attempts.

Branch clearly can handle the ball and is a slick passer -- occasionally too slick, leading to turnovers. He also may be a better perimeter shooter than we thought, knocking down a couple of treys late against the Hoyas. Fellow guard Phil Greene, who is playing through a hip injury, has struggled of late, with just seven points in the past three games combined. It may be time to hand Branch the keys to the team at the point and really see what he can do.

THE FIGHTING IRISH: Notre Dame is off to an excellent start, but had a 12-game winning streak snapped its last time out, losing 65-58 at home to Connecticut. That'll make the task on Tuesday even tougher for St. John's.

Six-foot-nine, 246-pound senior forward Jack Cooley is averaging a double-double, leading the Fighting Irish in scoring (15.1 ppg) and rebounding (11.1 rpg) while shooting 61.1 percent from the field. St. John's has no one who can match Cooley physically. Freshman center Chris Obekpa will have to battle Cooley as best he can, and the entire team will have to crash the boards.

Two other Notre Dame players average in double figures: 6-5 junior Jerian Grant (12.6 ppg, 5.2 apg) and 6-2 junior Eric Atkins (11.6 ppg, 7.1 apg). Both obviously distribute the ball well, too.

The Fighting Irish are ranked No. 5 in the country in field goal percentage (50.8), No. 9 in 3-point percentage (41.8) and No. 2 in assists per game (19.1). St. John's will have to bring it on defense, or else the Red Storm could suffer another blowout loss.