Syracuse-Duke Demands an Encore

There’s no proof that Punxsutawney Phil is a college basketball fan. But after dozing through Sunday’s Superbowl snorefest on Groundhog Day, on the heels of Syracuse’s heart-rending 91-89 OT victory over Duke Saturday night at the Carrier Dome, even a failed meteorologist with little knowledge of hoops would forecast six more weeks of intense college basketball leading to the start of the NCAA tournament on March 18th.

The build-up to the Super Bowl eclipsed interest in Syracuse-Duke. Many a sports fan with an inkling that Duke would be coming to Syracuse February 1st for their first-ever ACC meeting failed to block out the 6:30 start time with the wife and kids or simply forgot about it…… and came to regret it. Because long after the name of Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith (who?) is forgotten, this game will be remembered and recounted.

Well before the first tip, there was a sense of the enormity of the event. The opposing coaches – Mike Kryzyzewski and Jim Boeheim – were one, two in NCAA victories all time, 974 and 940, respectively. Though they had met twice before in pre-season tournaments, this was the first regularly scheduled game between the coaches. It would be Syracuse’s signature 2-3 zone defense against Duke’s equally suffocating man-to-man.

The Carrier Dome had been sold out for months. A record crowd for basketball of more than 36,000 was expected. Syracuse, number two in the nation, in its first year in the Atlantic Coast conference, had won 21 straight to start the season, including 7-0 in conference play. Duke, after a slow start, was back to being Duke.

When the defections of Syracuse and Pitt from the Big East to the ACC were first announced in September, 2011, followed by the departures of Notre Dame and Louisville, the predominant reactions were loathing, disgust, and sadness over the dismembering of the Big East. For the sake of cash, historic rivalries honed over the past 35 years were being trashed. The annual Big East tournament, one of college basketball’s great shows, would be diminished. Didn’t anybody remember the epic battles between Syracuse and Georgetown? How about some respect for the conference which produced eleven NCAA teams as recently as 2011?

But after Saturday night, any outcry over the emasculation of the Big East is likely to be muffled. Because as good as the Big East was – and it was very good – no regular season Big East encounter ever produced the drama of Saturday night. “There’s never been one as good as this one,” said Boeheim. If an expanded ACC can produce regular season games like this, it can’t be all bad.

On the way to their classic encounter, both Syracuse and Duke underwent growing pains. Syracuse needed to replace early departer Michael Carter-Williams at point guard, and Duke was experimenting with a new, albeit incredibly talented, front court. After uncharacteristic losses to Notre Dame and Clemson, the Blue Devils plunged to no. 17 in the national ratings.

Appropriately, Pitt served as an appetizer for both teams in advance of Saturday night’s showdown. On January 18th , Syracuse bested the Panthers in a bruising affair which was reminiscent of their Big East wars. You can transplant northern folk to Tobacco Road, but you can’t take the Big East out of Pitt-Syracuse. The Panthers dominated the offensive glass 16-4, outscoring the Orange 19-2 on second-chance points, but the game was in play until the final moments, when Carter-Williams’ replacement, freshman Tyler Ennis, took charge.

Ennis directs traffic against Duke

Exactly 52 weeks after The Hyphenator catapulted to national prominence with a virtuoso performance against then no. 1 Louisville, punctuated by a steal and thunderous driving dunk to provide the winning margin, Ennis calmly weaved his way through the Pittsburgh traffic for two layups, including a lefty floater with 30.6 seconds left which clinched the victory. Twelve of his sixteen points came in the second half.

“He made some of the best plays I’ve seen in a long time,” said Boeheim of Ennis after the Pitt game. “He has a knack for getting to the basket that’s about as good as anybody I’ve ever seen.” That’s tall praise considering that Boeheim has played with or coached Dave Bing, Pearl Washington, and Carmelo Anthony. “He’s Fred Astaire in sneakers,” said Bill Raftery.

Ennis has filled the vacancy created by the flamboyant Carter-Williams with a calmness and stability unfamiliar to Orange fans. Despite its success over the years, Syracuse has traditionally been turnover prone and erratic at the foul line. Carter-Williams himself was a high-risk player. Big leads often melted into nailbiters, or shocking losses. But with Ennis at the helm, late leads are like money in a safe deposit box. Ennis avoids turnovers (4:1 assist-turnover ratio), makes his foul shots (5-6 against Pitt, 8-8 against Duke), and shoots to a high percentage for a point guard (43.6%). He is as efficient as he is conservative.

Duke played its best game of the season at Pitt on Monday January 27th, pulling away for an 80-65 win. The plodding Panthers were overwhelmed by Duke’s 3-point marksmanship. Andre Dawkins, a fifth year senior returning after a year’s absence, led the way with 6 of 7 from beyond the arc.

The Blue Devils’ low national ranking belied their rapid improvement over the past three weeks and the emergence of freshman Jabari Parker, transfer Rodney Hood (Mississippi State), and sophomore Amile Jefferson to form an uber-talented front line. Armed with a quartet of sharpshooters in the back court, Duke was equipped to provide Syracuse its toughest test. And that it did. Despite the disappointing loss, they have the goods to make another run at a national title. All Duke lacks is a big body to protect the rim.

From the get-go, the Game lived up to its billing. Syracuse’s zone and shot blocking ability gave Duke fits. The Devils kept pace with their devastating 3-point shooting. Syracuse exploited its size advantage down low, and put Duke in early foul trouble. The Orange made their first 11 from the charity stripe and led 38-35 at the half.

Everyone played well. For Syracuse, C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant had career highs. Center Rakeem Christmas had a personal best six blocks and ten rebounds. Ennis was his flawless self. Duke had a season best fifteen 3-pointers out of 32 attempts. Parker, Hood, and Jefferson were superb. Tyler Thornton rescued Duke at the 6-minute mark with three 3-pointers in less than two minutes to erase a 7-point Syracuse lead. Rasheed Sulaimon hit two 3-pointers in the final minute including a tying shot at the end of regulation.

In the overtime, with Parker and Jefferson having fouled out, Ennis took advantage of the size mismatch and fed Grant with three perfect entry passes for no-dribble dunks. Two late foul shots by Ennis provided the winning points. Syracuse didn’t beat Duke. It outlasted the Blue Devils.

Were this a boxing match, the public would be crying out for a re-match. But it need not waste its breath. Duke-Syracuse II is scheduled for February 22nd at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Tickets are available from $1069.00.

I have a feeling that wives and children will take a back seat to this one.


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