The race for the ACC championship is Syracuse’s to lose this year, as the No. 2 team in the country is sitting pretty at 20-0 and a full two games ahead (in the loss column) of Duke and Pittsburgh.
However, if the Blue Devils walk into the Carrier Dome and upset the Orange on Feb. 1, everything is up for grabs once again.
It would have seemed absurd just a few weeks ago to suggest Mike Krzyzewski’s squad had a chance to win the ACC when it was 1-2 in conference and mired in an inexplicable slump. Yet, a five-game winning streak that includes a road victory at Pittsburgh has a funny way of changing perspective.
Whether Duke can pull the upset may come down to how the starters perform. With that in mind, let’s look at a position-by-position breakdown heading into this ACC showdown using the starting lineups from each team’s most recent game with one exception at the point guard spot.
Tyler Thornton started Duke’s last game against Pittsburgh because Quinn Cook turned his ankle against Florida State, but Cook is going to be the one playing the significant minutes for the Blue Devils at the point guard spot.
On the season as a whole, Cook is playing some of the best basketball of his career. He is averaging 12.4 points and 5.5 assists and has cut down on the turnover issues that hampered him at times early in his tenure.
However, his scoring has tempered off some (he finished in single-figures in four of the last five games) and he simply isn’t quite the point guard Tyler Ennis is for Syracuse.
Ennis has been one of the best point guards (and freshmen) in the entire nation, and he seems to get better every time he steps on the floor. His scoring and assists are virtually even with Cook (12.3 points and 5.4 assists), but the difference is on the defensive end.
The argument can be made that Ennis is better in the leadership department as well, which is impressive for the freshman.
"I never talk to him," said head coach Jim Boeheim, according to Donna Ditota of Syracuse.com. "I haven't talked to him since he came in. He's smarter than I am."
Cook struggles to keep his man in front of him when playing perimeter defense, while Ennis is one of the better defenders in the ACC (2.5 steals a game).
It has been an absolute roller-coaster of a season for Rasheed Sulaimon.
The sophomore started the year as the presumed third option behind Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood, and a 20-point performance in game one did nothing to quell the expectations. However, a string of poor games on both ends of the floor had him on the bench for the entire Michigan contest.
He bounced back with solid performances against Eastern Michigan, Elon and Georgia Tech and peaked with 21 points and the game-winning three against Virginia.
Still, inconsistency reared its ugly head again in the past two games, where Sulaimon shot a combined 2-of-15 from the field.
Inconsistency has been a problem for Syracuse’s Trevor Cooney as well, but he has had far more impressive performances than Sulaimon, including five games of at least 20 points. Cooney’s three-point ability is his forte, which fits in perfectly when C.J. Fair and Ennis draw multiple defenders.
Sulaimon may have a higher ceiling when he plays to his full potential, but Cooney has been the better player this year. Road games tend to bring out the inconsistency in up-and-down players, and the nod goes to the Orange here.
Jerami Grant has been excellent for Syracuse this season.
He is averaging 12.4 points and 6.8 rebounds a night and has given Jim Boeheim a formidable presence near the paint in the 2-3 zone. He has also improved his footwork on offense and often scores timely baskets for the Orange.
However, for as great as Grant has been for Syracuse, he is no Parker.
Parker may be the next No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, and during Duke’s recent five-game winning streak he has snapped out of the temporary slump he found himself in during the 1-2 start in conference play.
Parker is averaging 18.8 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.1 blocks and a steal a night and can score from almost anywhere on the floor. However, he is playing well once again because he has settled for fewer long-range shots and is mixing in a post game to bolster his scoring prowess.
This isn’t a knock against Grant as much as a realization that there may only be one or two players in the country better than Parker at his peak.
The fans aren’t treated to that many one-on-one showdowns when Syracuse plays because of the 2-3 zone, but this is the juiciest matchup on paper.
Hood would be the best player on almost any team in the country, and Fair—who was named preseason ACC Player of the Year—may have the best chance of any player not named Parker at taking home the conference’s MVP honors this year.
Fair is averaging 16.7 points and six rebounds a night while anchoring the 2-3 zone on the defensive end. He is a legitimate NBA prospect and is developing a deeper offensive arsenal as the season progresses.
As for Hood, he is averaging 17.4 points and 4.6 rebounds a game and carried this Duke team when Parker struggled. He is shooting an astounding 51 percent from the field, 45 percent from downtown and 84 percent from the free-throw line and has cracked double-figure scoring in every game but two.
Fair is the better defender and rebounder, but Hood has a higher offensive ceiling and is better across the board percentage-wise (from the field, line and behind the arc). This one’s a push.
The argument can be made that no player is more responsible for Duke’s five-game winning streak than Amile Jefferson.
The Blue Devils were one of the worst rebounding teams in the country with no inside presence for much of the early season, but Jefferson has established himself as a legitimate force down low.
He is averaging 6.8 points and seven rebounds a night, but he has been much better statistically since seeing an increase in minutes. He posted critical double-doubles against Pittsburgh and Virginia and is shooting an incredible 70 percent from the field in the last seven games.
As for Rakeem Christmas, he hasn’t exactly been the inside force many were hoping for before the season. He has only reached double-figures in scoring three times this season, but most disappointingly is only averaging 4.1 rebounds per game.
Christmas is still a formidable shot-blocker, but Jefferson has surpassed him as an overall player in the past few games.
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