Duke and Pittsburgh fought tooth and nail for the first 30 minutes of Monday night's ACC showdown, but the Blue Devils utilized a 12-0 run midway through the second half to pull away from the Panthers for an 80-65 victory.
When Pittsburgh and Syracuse squared off on Jan. 18—with a combined record of 33-1—and delivered a gem of a game, it looked like the old Big East was well on its way to taking over the ACC.
Not so fast, new guys. The ACC is still Duke's to lose.
Just 16 days before this win over Pittsburgh, Duke was in a world of hurt. After road losses to Notre Dame and Clemson, the Blue Devils were 1-2 in conference play and forcing us to come up with blueprints to fix their season.
After the loss to Clemson, Mike Krzyzewski revealed that his brother's recent death was weighing heavily upon him and affecting the entire team. At the time, it seemed like something of a scapegoat for problems that ran deeper than simple issues of lackadaisical defense and a distracted coaching, but this is a completely different team than the one we were watching a month ago.
The 15-point win over Pittsburgh was Duke's fourth consecutive victory by double digits. ''This is one of our youngest teams so they've had to learn under fire and tonight we played very well and we played with a lot of poise,'' Krzyzewski said, via CBSSports.com.
Even more impressive, it was the Blue Devils' fifth consecutive game holding an opponent to fewer than 66 points—something they failed to do in nine of their first 16 games of the season. Duke forward Rodney Hood scored just 13 points on Monday night but was arguably the MVP of the game because of his aggressive defense, limiting Pitt forward Lamar Patterson to just 14 points on 14 field-goal attempts.
Patterson entered the game averaging 1.53 points per field-goal attempt. In Saturday's win against Maryland, he scored 28 with seven rebounds and seven assists, but he never had a chance to get going against Duke.
Of course, there's a possibility that Pittsburgh's bark is worse than its bite. The No. 18 team in the country has an impressive 18-3 record, but the Panthers are 0-3 against the RPI Top 50 and played one of the weakest nonconference schedules in the entire country.
This was a nice win for Duke, but the true test will come on Saturday when the Blue Devils travel to the Carrier Dome to face Jim Boeheim's Orange.
If Duke is ever going to win a road game against Syracuse, now is the time. This team's confidence has to be at a season high, considering the way it has been steamrolling opponents over the past two weeks.
Also, the Blue Devils are on fire from three-point range as of late. Led by Andre Dawkins' 6-of-7 shooting, they made 13 of their 25 attempted triples on Monday night, putting their three-point shooting percentage over the past five games at 43.1 percent (50-of-116).
There's no time like the present to go up against a 2-3 zone.
One of the most interesting things about this stretch for Duke is that Jabari Parker still isn't shooting the ball very well. He's playing well and scoring plenty, but he is shooting just 36.2 percent from the floor and 31.6 percent from three-point range over his last five games. Of his 25 made field goals, 10 have been dunks.
Not that there's anything wrong with that—dunks are what make Arizona's Aaron Gordon worth watching on the offensive end of the court—it's just not the Parker we grew accustomed to watching over the first six weeks of the season. Through his first 11 games, Parker was shooting 47.5 percent from three-point range.
If he can rediscover that stroke after demonstrating an ability and willingness to drive to the rim, it might be game over for the rest of the ACC.
Regardless of how hot the Blue Devils are right now, their one-team defense of the old ACC regime will have been all for naught if they are unable to knock off Syracuse on Saturday. A loss in that game would be their third in ACC play, making it completely unrealistic to catch and surpass the still-undefeated Orange.
Win that game, though, and it's suddenly a two-horse race for the ACC regular-season championship, with a home game against Syracuse on Feb. 22 still pending.
For both teams, it will be the biggest test of the season thus far.
Duke certainly seems to be up for the challenge.
Is Syracuse ready for the new and improved Blue Devils?