Syracuse University’s first basketball game in its new conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference, was against the University of Miami, traditionally more of a football power than a basketball power. Orange fans must’ve been excited to see their team in a league that’s known for its wide-open and high-octane offense, instead of the stodgy, pounding defensive style of the Big East Conference they used to play in.
But in this first ACC game, that pounding, low-scoring style was exactly what transpired. The Orange prevailed 49-44, though, shooting just 36.2 percent from the field and 20 percent from the beyond the 3-point line.
That game was on Jan 4. The game that has me (and Syracuse fans everywhere) practically shaking with excitement took place just four days ago, Feb. 1, against Duke University. It was Syracuse’s first matchup with Duke since joining the ACC, and a game that college basketball pundits had circled on their calendars even before the season started.
To properly understand what this game meant, you’ve got to know about Duke’s basketball tradition. Duke has won four national titles, had 11 players win National Player of the Year awards and is first in NCAA history with a .750 winning percentage in the NCAA tournament. Simply put, they’re really good. They always have been really good. And, with their recruitment ability, they always will be very good.
But there’s a bit of a difference between being “really good” and “great.” It’s not always a discernable difference. It’s not a difference as wide as the chasm that suddenly appeared between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLVIII. But there is a difference. This Syracuse team is great, at least so far. Coming into the Duke game, they were 20-0, with a 7-0 record in the ACC. Duke was 17-4, with a 6-2 ACC mark. But over a couple hours on a dreary Saturday afternoon in February, the two teams played what was the game of the year so far.
Syracuse led 38-35 at the half. But the second half was possibly the most frantic 20 minutes of basketball — college or pro — that I’ve ever seen. Duke’s 3-point shooting, a hallmark of the squad in recent years (remember J.J. Redick?), was incredible. All told, the Blue Devils shot 41.7 percent from beyond the arc, making 15 out of a ridiculous 36 attempts. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has long allowed his teams to jack up copious amounts of 3-pointers, with mixed results. It often works during the regular season, but during the NCAA Tournament, it’s risky. If the Blue Devils go cold from beyond the arc, they haven’t always had the inside presence necessary to score down low and secure rebounds.
But Duke was hitting its deep balls against the Orange. Back and forth the game went, and finally Tyler Ennis of Syracuse was fouled with four seconds left. The freshman calmly drained both free throws, putting the Orange up by three. But Duke guard Rasheed Sulaimon, who came alive in the second half, hit a contested 3-pointer as time expired to send the game into overtime.
Once the overtime began, Syracuse’s size advantage down low began to show. Jerami Grant took passes from Tyler Ennis and dunked three times in three minutes. But Duke guard Andre Dawkins hit two 3-point shots to keep the Blue Devils in the game. Ultimately, free-throw makes by Ennis and senior C.J. Fair turned out to be the winning margin.
It was the highest of high sports drama. I wish I could’ve been in the Carrier Dome on Saturday afternoon; it’s always a great venue for basketball. The noise must’ve been just unbelievable throughout the entire contest, except, of course, when Sulaimon buried the game-tying trey ball. That’s what is so great about college sports and basketball in particular. You can be absolutely convinced that your team has secured a victory. All the momentum (and indeed the scoreboard) could be in your favor.
But with one shot, all your hopes can fade away. Sulaimon quieted the Carrier Dome crowd throughout the second half. He reminded me of Jamal Crawford, the high-scoring Los Angeles Clippers guard. Crawford is known for his scoring ability, especially in the clutch. But he also has a knack for shutting up raucous crowds, usually with his ball handling wizardry and ability to shoot the basketball. Sulaimon had a Crawford-esque performance against Syracuse.
But it’s the future that really excites me. The rivalry continues in three short weeks Feb. 22 at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium. It’ll be fascinating to see how the Orange respond to Duke’s rabid student section, the so-called “Cameron Crazies.” But this rivalry promises to be incredible for years to come.
Both teams are regularly in the top-ranked teams in the nation. Can you imagine, every year, these two teams duking it out on national television for ACC supremacy? What if they meet in the NCAA Tournament? They might. And if (and when) they do, it’ll just make the rivalry all that much better. Move over, University of North Carolina. Syracuse has arrived in the ACC, and given Duke a fantastic rival to try to topple.