Duke and Syracuse ushered in February—otherwise known as the month that sports fans start to direct much more attention to college basketball—in style with arguably the game of the year.
For 45 minutes, the Blue Devils and Orange played such a high-level, back-and-forth affair that all the old rivalries of the Big East that Syracuse left behind seemed to fade away. Students camped out for two weeks in freezing temperatures to get in the doors, Vanessa Williams sang the national anthem, and a star-struck television audience tuned in on ESPN.
Will Duke finish in the top two in the ACC?
During the game, C.J. Fair showed with his 28 points why Jabari Parker wasn’t the only ACC Player of the Year candidate on the court, Rasheed Sulaimon drained a buzzer-beating three to force overtime on the road, and Rodney Hood was centimeters away from flushing home one of the most memorable dunks in Duke history to grab the lead in the final seconds.
The fact that Hood was arguably fouled on the attempt was almost completely overshadowed by the quality of the game.
As far as Jim Boeheim was concerned, it could have been the best contest in the storied history of the Carrier Dome, via Dana O’Neil of ESPN.com:
I don’t think I’ve been involved in a better game in here that I can remember…If you paid $2,400 for a courtside seat, it was money well spent. And if you sold your tickets, well, you should be ashamed because you made money but you missed out on an epic.
Nevertheless, from a Duke perspective there is no credit for close losses when it comes to the ACC standings.
In terms of the Blue Devils' ACC championship hopes, a 25-point loss technically would have hurt just as much. Mike Krzyzewski’s squad is staring at a three-game deficit in the loss column with Syracuse, and that’s not even mentioning other possible contenders in Virginia and Pittsburgh.
The Blue Devils have nine games remaining against North Carolina (twice), Boston College, Wake Forest (twice), Maryland, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Syracuse. If they play like they did in the Carrier Dome, it really isn’t that much of a stretch to see the Blue Devils winning out, especially with the rematch against the Orange coming in Durham.
It probably won’t happen, though, because the level of play was so elevated in that Syracuse game, but from a talent standpoint Duke could very well navigate that path.
In the light of the heartbreaking but encouraging Syracuse loss and the five-game winning streak before it, Sulaimon and Andre Dawkins are playing with confidence. Throw in the fact that Amile Jefferson is an absolute force down low, and this team is much more than just Jabari Parker and Hood.
So keep faith, Blue Devils fans.
Still, even with a hypothetical 9-0 finish, the Blue Devils' ACC title chances are very slim with that three-game deficit to a Syracuse squad that already has one head-to-head victory against Duke.
However, the Orange have a number of imposing road games remaining on the schedule (five in total), highlighted by trips to Cameron Indoor Stadium, Pittsburgh and Virginia. The Orange could lose three of those five road games, which would give Duke a chance to catch them.
That being said, this Syracuse squad is undefeated for a reason. There is talent at every level of the court from Fair to Tyler Ennis to Jerami Grant.
Let’s put the Blue Devils’ ACC title chances at 5 percent, and that’s probably being generous. There is just too much that has to break Duke’s way, much of which is out of its control, to take home the regular-season championship.
Fortunately for Krzyzewski and Co., the most meaningful college basketball titles are won in March. Duke has the talent to cut down the nets at the ACC tournament and possibly even the NCAA tournament.
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