Duke Basketball: Blue Devils' Reasons for Optimism Ahead of Clash vs. Syracuse

Scott PolacekFeatured ColumnistJanuary 28, 2014

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If you take the polls’ word for it, the only college basketball team in the entire country that is better than Syracuse is Arizona.

The Orange are sitting pretty at 19-0 with victories over Pittsburgh, Villanova, Indiana, North Carolina, California, Minnesota and Baylor as part of their early resume, enjoying one of the best home-court advantages in the entire country.

In fact, the Carrier Dome is expecting a crowd of about 36,000 for its Feb. 1 showdown with Duke, per the Jim and Juli Boeheim Foundation:

It’s not just the venue that is intimidating, though.

Syracuse features C.J. Fair on the inside, Trevor Cooney from behind the three-point line, Jerami Grant from midrange and Tyler Ennis as the freshman point guard who controls the tempo on both ends of the floor. Few teams, if any, in the entire country have the type of talent across the board that Boeheim does at his disposal.

SYRACUSE, NY - JANUARY 18:  C.J. Fair #5 of the Syracuse Orange carries the ball towards the basket in the first half against the Pittsburgh Panthers on January 18, 2014 at The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York.  (Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images)
Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

There is no way that the same Duke team that lost two of its first three ACC games to unranked foes Notre Dame and Clemson is going to walk into the Carrier Dome and hand Syracuse its first defeat, right?

Don’t be so quick to jump to that conclusion.

This isn’t the same Blue Devils team that was beaten by the Fighting Irish and Tigers and barely scraped past the likes of Vermont, East Carolina and Virginia. Mike Krzyzewski’s bunch has won five in a row, and the last four have come in dominant fashion.

Furthermore, any worries about winning on the road were greatly diminished when Duke walked into the Petersen Events Center and destroyed Pittsburgh in front of a raucous sell-out crowd.

However, it is more than just the fact that Duke has won five games in a row that gives the glass-half-full approach credence heading into the showdown with Syracuse. There are specific reasons for optimism that have revealed themselves during the current five-game winning streak that should have Blue Devils fans confident their team can get back into the ACC race with a win.

PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 27:  Andre Dawkins #34 of the Duke Blue Devils pulls up for a three-point shot against James Robinson #0 of the Pittsburgh Panthers at Petersen Events Center on January 27, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Al
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

For one, Andre Dawkins looked like an assassin from behind the three-point line against Pittsburgh. He finished with 20 points in only 15 minutes behind 6-of-7 shooting from downtown. Anytime it looked like the Panthers were getting back into the game in the second half, Dawkins hit a back-breaking three.

It’s no secret that the best way to beat a 2-3 zone is with effective perimeter shooting. Not only does it reward a team with the immediate points for the basket, but it also opens up the lane for future penetration because the zone has to stretch itself out further to cover the hot shooter.

If Dawkins can get into double figures against Syracuse, Duke will win. At least it will if you believe the stat Jay Williams of ESPN provided:

Dawkins has rewarded Coach K when he gets in the game, which is something that can be said for a number of Duke players. Krzyzewski has used his bench more during this five-game winning streak than he did earlier in the year, which has directly resulted in less fatigue, thus a greater willingness to attack the rim on offense and go all-out on defense.

Different guys have come through at different times: Dawkins against Pittsburgh, Rodney Hood when Jabari Parker was struggling early in ACC play and Rasheed Sulaimon with a critical game-winning three against Virginia.

Assuming the game is tight, keeping a fresh rotation will be critical against Syracuse. Duke will need energized players down the stretch to beat both the Orange and the hostile crowd.  

PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 27:  Amile Jefferson #21 of the Duke Blue Devils lays one in against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Petersen Events Center on January 27, 2014 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Another reason for optimism is the production of one of the big guys who has been one of the most important players in that expanded rotation.

Since mid-December, Amile Jefferson has become a rebounding force and has shored up the Blue Devils’ biggest weakness. Jefferson grabbed double-digit rebounds against Gardner-Webb, Eastern Michigan, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Pittsburgh and posted double-doubles in the victories over the Cavaliers and Panthers.

The Blue Devils won’t be mistaken for one of the best rebounding teams in the country at any point this year, but Jefferson’s presence alone has turned a crippling weakness into something that could instill optimism going forward.

Speaking of optimism, Parker has looked much more like the national superstar who captured the attention of NBA scouts everywhere lately than the freshman who struggled and was benched against Notre Dame.

He posted double-doubles in each of the past three games, is no longer settling for perimeter shots, is attacking the rim and getting to the free-throw line, is using his post-up game with regularity and is no longer forcing the issue when double-teams come. Parker’s willingness to give up the ball when pressured by the defense is a primary reason why role players like Dawkins have thrived lately.

Parker is playing like the superstar he is, and Jefferson is proving to be a formidable presence down low. With Dawkins as a three-point threat against the Syracuse zone and a fresh rotation ready to pressure the Orange all game long, the Blue Devils may just walk into the Carrier Dome and shake up the ACC race.


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