Looking to put Saturday’s loss to North Carolina in the rearview, top-seeded Duke is set for another clash with No. 9-seed Syracuse in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. Here are five things to know before Duke's postseason gets underway.
An emphatic return
Syracuse has had a rough go of it in recent weeks, to say the least. Four consecutive losses closed out a difficult ACC campaign for head coach Jim Boeheim's squad, one of which was a 25-point loss to the Blue Devils at home in Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski's final trip to upstate New York.
And then the Orange beat Florida State by 39 in Wednesday's second-round game. Thirty-nine.
Before Wednesday's game, Syracuse’s largest victory against a conference opponent was a 23-point win against Louisville in early February. It perhaps speaks to the inconsistency for which the Orange have been renowned this year—that they can win a game so handily and then go on a four-game winless run—but there is something to be said for the utter dominance that they put on display against the Seminoles. Four players hit double digits in scoring, two players grabbed 13-plus rebounds and the team shot 47.1% from the floor with seven treys. If nothing else, Syracuse meets Duke with the absolute best possible result in the rearview mirror, but it's going to have to take on the Blue Devils without star guard Buddy Boeheim, who will miss Thursday's game due to a one-game suspension for punching Florida State’s Wyatt Wilkes.
The other side of the ball
With the ridiculous amount of offensive firepower Duke possesses, it can be easy to forget that its defense matters just as much. ACC Defensive Player of the Year Mark Williams has been dominant on the glass with 7.2 rebounds per game and an absurd 2.8 blocks per game while junior captain Wendell Moore Jr.‘s press and hustle have caused opponents plenty of headaches.
“We've shown throughout the year times where we've been tough on defense,” said Williams. “And when we're connected on those sort of levels, [we’re] probably one of the best teams in the country defensively.”
Williams is correct that the Blue Devils’ defensive depth is just as good as their offensive depth, but in recent weeks it has lagged behind. Saturday’s defeat to North Carolina was the clearest example, as Duke’s surrendered five 3-pointers to Tar Heel forward Brady Manek and big man Armando Bacot had his way in the key. Duke can score, but the phrase “defense wins championships” exists for a reason, and an upgrade on the other side of the ball will be key to a victory against the Orange and to any hopes of winning the whole tournament.
In that demolition job against Florida State, one man led the charge for Syracuse: Cole Swider. The Villanova transfer has been an absolute menace in recent games, with his 28-point showing against the Seminoles only eclipsed by his 36 points against North Carolina in Chapel Hill a couple of weeks ago.
Take what you will from stats, but rarely do numbers lie—even less so when those numbers are as high as these. Swider is an offensive force and a strong rebounder (he snagged 13 rebounds against Florida State) and will be key to Syracuse's offense against this national title-contending Blue Devil team. His recent sky-high scoring and impressive rebounding numbers make him a very real threat in this next chapter of Syracuse's postseason journey. A good game from Swider–like his performances against the Tar Heels and Seminoles–can make any game a close one and maybe, just maybe, continue Syracuse's season with a Cinderella run to the semifinals.
Despite a Duke loss in Krzyzewski’s final home outing against North Carolina, spectacular freshman forward Paolo Banchero walked away with 23 points and five assists to his name. Of course, the Tar Heels had four players eclipse 20 points and had their own All-ACC big man in Bacot tally 23 points as well, but Banchero was a standout for the Blue Devils and kept them in a contest that North Carolina threatened to run away with for much of the second half.
“Individually, you're gonna have ups and downs,” said Banchero. “I've definitely experienced both of those throughout the regular season.”
In spite of a handful of individual down games, the projected NBA lottery pick has been fantastic all season, leading his team in scoring and rebounding and earning ACC Freshman of the Year honors Monday. He is 100% the threat Syracuse will prepare for and worry about most urgently.
When you have a 6-foot-10, 250-pound machine like Banchero who hits double-doubles like nobody’s business, you have a shot against anyone. Syracuse isn’t an opponent that Duke will likely be scared of, but it is one that provides yet another stage for Banchero to show why he is one of the nation’s premier talents this season.
A quest for revenge
If you tuned in to Saturday’s historic game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, chances are high that your jaw is still hurting from hitting the floor so hard.
Prior to tipoff, it almost seemed a formality that Duke would leave with its 17th conference win of the season and a final one-up on North Carolina, possibly expelling the Tar Heels from the NCAA tournament and sending Krzyzewski and his team into the postseason on a high note. What instead happened was a 13-point thumping with a stunned student section and a dejected bench watching on.
But, as Krzyzewski said after re-emerging from the locker room for the postgame ceremony, “the season’s not over.”
It’s truly showtime for these Blue Devils, who narrowly locked up the program's first outright ACC title since 2006 and saw their mettle tested again and again by conference opponents looking to spoil Krzyzewski's parade. Thursday’s clash with Syracuse is their first chance to put the sting of Saturday behind them and to start off the postseason with a bang.
“We know what we did wrong, we know what we've got to do,” said Banchero. “We're excited to go to New York and try and win a championship here.”
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