Syracuse-Duke ACC Rivalry Begins with Instant Classic: Orange Win OT Thriller

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Syracuse-Duke ACC Rivalry Begins with Instant Classic: Orange Win OT Thriller
Mark Konezny/USA Today

"We've had a lot of games in here that have been great, but there's never been a game as good as this one," said Jim Boeheim after Syracuse defeated Duke in their first ACC game against each other.

Few sporting events actually live up to the hype, but this one delivered and then some.

In a way, it played out exactly as expected. Duke attempted a ton of three-pointers against Syracuse's patented zone—36 of them, to be exact—and Syracuse exploited Duke's lack of interior defense time and again.

Their styles of play on both ends of the court couldn't be more diverse, but those polarizing differences made for a wildly entertaining matchup on Saturday night.

Coming into the game, 38.8 percent of Duke's field-goal attempts had come from beyond the three-point arc, and Syracuse's opponents were attempting 43.5 percent of their field goals from long range against the 2-3 zone—the latter of which was the fourth-highest rate in the nation. On Saturday, 50 percent of Duke's field-goal attempts were three-pointers, led by Rasheed Sulaimon and Andre Dawkins, who combined to shoot 8-of-16.

Rich Barnes/Getty Images

Frankly, it's a bit surprising that Duke didn't attempt even more three-pointers than it did. Syracuse had nine blocks on the night and absolutely smothered any Blue Devil that came into the lane. Trying to get to the rim against the Orange was the equivalent of trying to run against a defense in football that's stacking nine men in the box.

At the other end of the court, three-point attempts were predictably nonexistent. Opponents were attempting only 24.8 percent of their field goals from downtown against Duke's man-to-man defense—the sixth-lowest rate in the country, according to KenPom (subscription required). Meanwhile, Syracuse was only taking 28.2 percent of its shots from beyond the arc.

Add it all up, and Syracuse only attempted four three-pointers.

The fact is that they didn't need to shoot threes. Maybe Trevor Cooney could've been a little more active on the perimeter, but C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant effortlessly got to the rim.

Especially once Duke's big men got into foul trouble.

With 12:30 remaining in the game, both Jabari Parker and Amile Jefferson seemed to be heating up. They had combined to score 11 of Duke's 15 second-half points and were each playing with two fouls.

Less than two minutes of game time later, they were both on the bench with four fouls. By the end of the game, Duke had lost three players to fouls, and Rodney Hood played the final seven minutes with four fouls.

No one on Syracuse finished the game with more than three fouls. Fair and Grant combined for 28 points in the first 29 minutes and scored 24 in the final 16 minutes.

These are facts, not complaints. Some of the calls may have been a little suspect, but that was bound to happen when Syracuse drove to the paint over and over again. Contact is inevitable when a team attempts 50 two-point field goals—which doesn't even include the missed field goals when there was a foul called.

Syracuse simply played Big East basketball a little bit better than Duke could play ACC basketball.

Even though Duke and Syracuse each played the exact style of basketball that has earned their respective coaches more than 900 wins each over the past three-plus decades, we learned a few things about both teams on Saturday night.

For one, we found out that the Orange actually are capable of scoring in ACC play. They averaged just 62.4 points per game in their first seven ACC contests. The 91-point effort was the first time in nearly two months that they scored more than 78 points in a game.

And amazingly, they did it without forcing a ton of turnovers, without shooting three-pointers and without one of those 20-0 runs they have grown so fond of this season. In fact, they forced just eight turnovers, made just three triples and only once went on a run of more than four unanswered points—an 8-0 stretch with six minutes remaining in the first half.

After averaging just 17 made two-point field goals over their last three games, the Orange made 28 shots inside the arc.

Along with that, we learned that C.J. Fair can simply take over a game whenever he feels like it.

Deep down, we already knew it. But it had been a while since Fair had a "Watch your back, Doug McDermott, because I'm coming for the Wooden Award" type of night. It was Fair's 17th consecutive game scoring in double figures, and the 28 points are a new career high for the preseason All-American.

On Duke's sideline, we learned that the Blue Devils actually are capable of scoring when Jabari Parker and Quinn Cook aren't shooting well.

Nick Lisi/Associated Press

Parker ended up with 15 points, but his stroke was off, as it has been for much of the past month. His six made field goals were four dunks, a layup and a jumper, while his 10 missed shots were four jumpers and six layups—though, they weren't so much layups as heavily contested efforts to score from two feet away.

Cook was even worse, scoring just seven points and missing seven three-pointers—nearly all of which were uncontested. He is now 11-of-40 from three-point range in his last eight games after shooting better than 40 percent over the first half of the season.

In their stead, Dawkins, Sulaimon and Tyler Thornton stepped up, combining for 39 points and 11 made three-pointers.

The real star of the game for Duke, though, was Amile Jefferson. Despite being limited by foul trouble for most of the night, Jefferson scored 14 points while adding seven rebounds and five assists. It was the fifth time in six games that he had at least eight points and seven rebounds, after spending most of November and December struggling to even get playing time ahead of Josh Hairston.

On Saturday, Hairston officially played zero minutes, but got into the game long enough to touch the ball once and turn it over. Marshall Plumlee wasn't any better, attempting zero shots in 10 minutes on the court, even though Syracuse was perfectly content with letting him catch and hold the ball at the free-throw line.

Their poor play only further proves the point that Duke desperately needs Jefferson to continue playing at an elevated level.

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During the 2010 championship season, Brian Zoubek came out of seemingly nowhere to become the reliable post presence the team had been lacking all season. It's possible that Jefferson is playing that part to a tee.

One final thing we learned: The rematch in Durham on Feb. 22 is going to be a whole lot of fun. Syracuse has four home games and a road game against Pitt between now and then.

If the Orange play as well in those games as they did on Saturday night, they'll enter that game with a 26-0 record.

Even if they're no longer undefeated for that game, Duke vs. Syracuse is officially a "can't miss" game until further notice.

Not bad for the first game between new conference rivals.

 

Unless otherwise noted, statistics are courtesy of KenPom.com (subscription required).

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.

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