Duke Basketball: How Blue Devils Match Up vs. ACC's Elite Teams

Scott PolacekFeatured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2014

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski reacts during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against Syracuse in Durham, N.C., Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)
Gerry Broome/Associated Press

You can count the number of college basketball teams in the entire country with more talent than Duke on paper with one hand.

The Blue Devils have won 11 of their past 13 games, including a thriller over Syracuse, and are poised to make noise in March with a top-10 ranking. However, they find themselves in third place in the ACC regular-season standings with only two games remaining.

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

That begs the question, where does Duke stand in the ACC pecking order as we head down the stretch run?

For one, all of that talent will be critical in the one-and-done formats of the conference and NCAA tournaments. With Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook, Andre Dawkins and Amile Jefferson among others, Mike Krzyzewski doesn’t have to rely on just one player to score.

Gerry Broome/Associated Press

It makes an off night for a given star at an important time much easier to overcome as a team.

On account of that talent and the overall production of the season, one team we can definitively say Duke is better than is Pittsburgh.

The Panthers were ranked highly at one point, but they have nose dove with three straight losses heading into the contest with Boston College. In fact, the only wins Pittsburgh has in the past seven games both came in overtime against Virginia Tech and Miami.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

Pittsburgh has zero marquee wins and is a combined 0-5 against the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Virginia.

Speaking of the Cavaliers, no team in the ACC has a better conference record. The upcoming game with Syracuse will likely determine the No. 1 seed in the league’s tournament, and if you ask Notre Dame’s head coach Mike Brey, he would say Virginia is the best team in the conference.

At least that’s what his postgame comments after the Cavaliers beat the Fighting Irish indicated (via Notre Dame’s official athletic website):

That is an example of how fragile a game can be. For thirty minutes, I really liked what we were doing. Virginia is really good, they are really, really good. I think they are the best team in the league and they put it on us twice. Their big guys hurt us tonight. Their two big guys were fabulous. The whole team is so explosive. It is a beautiful facility and a great atmosphere.

Virginia might be the best team right now talent wise. They are very physical. They are really good at guarding you and they dictate the tempo of the game. I think they are a really confident group. Their team knows who they are on both ends of the court.

Despite Virginia’s impressive turnaround from a nonconference schedule that included losses to VCU, Wisconsin, Green Bay and Tennessee by a whopping 35 points, Duke gets the edge here.

Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

For one, the Blue Devils already beat the Cavaliers in their only game. It came down to the final few possessions but only because Coach K’s squad nearly collapsed down the stretch of a contest it absolutely controlled for 35 minutes.

What’s more, the fact that Virginia has only played Duke once, hasn’t played Syracuse yet and doesn’t have to travel to North Carolina this year has played a factor in its impressive league record.

The Blue Devils did have to go to North Carolina and came away with a difficult loss.

Based on the one head-to-head contest, it’s hard to give the advantage to Duke in the rivalry right now unless it beats the Tar Heels in the rematch. The Heels have won nine games in a row heading into the contest with North Carolina State.

Let’s give a tentative edge to North Carolina for the time being. If the talented Blue Devils win the rematch, we can revisit, but the Heels’ physicality and prowess on the boards plays right into one of Duke’s few weaknesses.

CHAPEL HILL, NC - FEBRUARY 20:  Jabari Parker #1 of the Duke Blue Devils defends a shot by Marcus Paige #5 of the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at the Dean Smith Center on February 20, 2014 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. North Carolina won 7
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

That leaves Syracuse.

Jim Boeheim’s tantrum aside, the Orange and Blue Devils have treated college basketball fans to two of the best games of the entire season. It is safe to call the matchup a potentially budding rivalry at this point, and talent-wise there may not be two teams in the ACC more poised to go deep in the NCAA tournament.

However, the Orange have lost two of their past three games, and their last three wins have come by a combined five points against Maryland, North Carolina State and Pittsburgh.

DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 22:  Jabari Parker #1 of the Duke Blue Devils takes a rebound away from C.J. Fair #5 and Jerami Grant #3 of the Syracuse Orange during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 22, 2014 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 66-6
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

There are two ways to look at the close calls—Syracuse isn’t good enough to create separation against teams it should beat handily, or it will be battle-tested come tournament time. With seemingly every game in the postseason a tight one, the thinking here is that the close game experience will come in handy come March.

Taking the two tightly fought head-to-head contests that went to the home team, Syracuse’s two-game lead over Duke in the loss column and the Orange’s recent struggles all into account, let’s call the Duke versus Syracuse debate a push for now. 

Here’s to hoping we get a decisive rematch in the ACC tournament.


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