The Duke Blue Devils face the Syracuse Orange in Durham Saturday, Feb. 22, in a rematch of one of the most exciting games of the college basketball season.
The teams go into this game with chips on their respective shoulders, as both teams are coming off a loss, and Selection Sunday is right around the corner. The Devils will have to improve on a couple key factors from the first matchup in order to come out on top.
The Devils are a notoriously small team and have struggled with rebounding all season. Jabari Parker (8.8 RPG) and Amile Jefferson (6.7 RPG) have been Duke’s only reliable rebounders all year. Both players fouled out in the first meeting, leaving Duke with very few options in the frontcourt and small forward Rodney Hood taking the jump ball in overtime.
Going against the small lineup, Syracuse scored 13 points in the five-minute overtime, including three straight dunks by power forward Jerami Grant. Duke will need both Jefferson and Parker to stay on the court in order to have any chance hanging with the Orange in the paint.
Duke was able to score against Syracuse’s vaunted 2-3 zone defense in the first matchup with solid outside shooting, going 15-of-36 from beyond the three-point line. Duke is a good shooting team, but it has proved over the last few games it’s capable of prolonged cold spells. Duke was only 5-of-24 from outside against Maryland last Saturday and went just 1-of-11 over the last 15 minutes against UNC.
Duke will need to avoid relying on the three-pointer and attack the zone by getting the ball in the high post. Parker has shown a great ability to operate from the elbow, and Hood certainly has the skills to do so, but he got almost no touches in that area in the first game. Jefferson got some touches in the high post, and even though he seemed hesitant to attack at times, he finished the game with 14 points and five assists.
Hood will need to be more aggressive than he was in the first meeting for Duke to win. Lately, Parker has been playing down low on offense more, so Hood and Rasheed Sulaimon have become Duke’s primary perimeter playmakers. Against Syracuse, Hood attempted 11 shots, right at his season average of 11.4. But including overtime, he did play 11 more minutes than his average.
Hood seemed confused about how to attack the zone off the dribble, even hesitating for a moment on that final drive and dunk attempt. He will need to be more than a spot-up shooter in the rematch.
Maybe the most important factor for Duke will be an improved defensive performance. Syracuse shot over 57 percent in the first matchup. Every starter for the Orange scored higher than their season averages and shot at least 50 percent from the field. Point guard Tyler Ennis does a great job of running the team and had a great game against Duke.
However, Duke has recently made some lineup changes and now has Sulaimon guarding the opposing point guard most of the game. Sulaimon has the length and speed to bother his opponents and should be able to do a better job on Ennis than Quinn Cook did in the first game.
Duke has a lot to prove in this game. Plenty is on the line as far as conference standings and NCAA tournament resumes. The Devils played the Orange tough in the earlier meeting, but it wasn't enough to come out on top. If this young group of Devils from their previous shortcomings against Syracuse, they can pick up not just a win but a nice confidence boost heading into late February and March.