In just three seasons since the Orange joined the ACC, Syracuse’s series with Duke has more than lived up to its billing. Two of the winningest coaches in NCAA history have been manning the sidelines, four of the five clashes have been decided by eight or fewer points, and fans have even been treated to a pair of controversial finishes at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
With Duke looking to extend its ACC winning streak to eight—something the Blue Devils have accomplished just twice in the past 10 years—and Syracuse playing for its NCAA tournament life, Wednesday’s rendition of the budding rivalry looks set to join that list.
The No. 10 Blue Devils will visit Syracuse at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, N.Y., at 7 p.m. hoping to build on a recent tear that has seen Duke pick up three consecutive road wins after starting league play winless in its first three contests away from Durham. Although veterans Grayson Allen and Amile Jefferson have been playing at less than 100 percent, Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski said Monday on the ACC’s weekly teleconference that both would be a full go with Duke’s offense operating at peak efficiency.
The Blue Devils currently hold the seventh-most efficient offense in the nation, according to basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy’s metric.
But to get dialed in again from 3-point range, Duke will have to navigate a Syracuse 2-3 zone that slowed down the Blue Devils a year ago in an upset victory. Jim Boeheim’s traditional defense limited Duke to just 62 points and 10-of-37 shooting from beyond the arc.
And to get back in the win column against the Orange, Duke will have to stay poised in the building that set NCAA regular-season attendance records in the Blue Devils’ last two visits.
“I still think we can get a lot better. I don’t think we’re at our potential yet,” sophomore Luke Kennard said after Saturday’s 99-94 win against Wake Forest. “It’s a period of time where it’s getting to the tough part of the season and we’ve got to finish it out.”
Following a miraculous Final Four run after navigating the NCAA tournament bubble last year, Syracuse got off to a bumpy start with a 3-5 stretch from Nov. 26 to Dec. 21, capped by a shocking 90-63 home blowout loss against St. John’s. Things did not get much better at the start of ACC play when Syracuse lost by five at ACC bottom-feeder Boston College.
The roller-coaster ride has continued for the Orange (16-12, 8-7 in the ACC), who won eight of their next 11 before dropping three straight heading into Wednesday’s game. A main reason for Syracuse’s inconsistency has been its defensive lapses—the team ranks 124th nationally by surrendering 70.3 points per contest.
Unlike in years past, though, the Orange offense has led the team to a pair of quality home victories against Florida State and Virginia.
In the backcourt, graduate transfers Andrew White III and John Gillon can fill it up from long range, and rookie Tyus Battle has already shown a knack for hitting timely perimeter shots. Gillon ranks fourth in the ACC at 5.4 assists per game, distributing the ball to his backcourt mates and sophomore forward Tyler Lydon.
After emerging in the NCAA tournament last year, Lydon has had an up-and-down season but is still shooting 41.9 percent from downtown and is a capable shot blocker as well as the team’s leading rebounder.
However, to pull off another home upset, Syracuse will have to contend with Duke’s eighth-ranked 3-point defense. The Blue Devils (22-5, 10-4) have held their ACC opponents to just 31.8 percent from distance—tops in the league—meaning that something will likely have to give against the Orange.
“Something was missing...and it showed up defensively in the first half,” Krzyzewski said Saturday. “In the second half, we just switched everything. We thought, ‘We can’t go zone, our ball-screen defense stinks, let’s switch and if they try to take advantage of us inside, at least they won’t be driving and they’ll be 2-point shots.’”
Freshman Jayson Tatum has proven to be a matchup nightmare in Duke’s biggest games this year, and that trend will likely need to continue Wednesday. The St. Louis native poured in all 19 of his points in the second half against North Carolina and set a career-high with 28 at Virginia—his versatility and jump shooting make him an ideal candidate to burst the bubble in the middle of Syracuse’s zone.
If Krzyzewski indeed decides to utilize the first-year forward in the middle of the zone, it will likely then be incumbent on Allen—who has battled multiple foot injuries this year—and freshman Frank Jackson to get the ball to both Kennard and Tatum where they can attack.
With the Blue Devils traveling for another road test at Miami later in the week, Duke will likely need all hands on deck in its quest for the ACC regular-season title.
“[Allen’s] a great athlete, not a good one,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s accustomed to doing things with his body that you and I never have a clue, and then all of a sudden, you try to do it instinctively and it doesn’t work, or it tweaks you a little bit more and you get frustrated.”
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."