Duke-Syracuse gets off to a quality start

Feb. 02, 2014 @ 09:49 PM

Having long ago entrenched itself at college basketball’s big boy table, Duke expects to win games like Saturday night’s epic showdown at No. 2 Syracuse.

It didn’t matter that a crowd of 35,446 was roaring against them. It didn’t matter that the Orange were one of three remaining unbeaten teams in Division I men’s college basketball.

It didn’t even matter when Duke lost two of its top interior players, 6-8 Jabari Parker and 6-9 Amile Jefferson, to fouls and had to play overtime without them.

The Blue Devils played to win until the final second of overtime ticked away and were disappointed to come on basket short in a 91-89 overtime loss.

“We just wanted to win so badly,” Duke sophomore guard Rasheed Sulaimon said. “We were just going to fight as hard as we can to try to make plays. We were outsized a little bit, but I’m proud of our guys. We played with a lot of heart and a lot of adversity in a hostile environment. I thought we played good enough to win. It’s hard to swallow. But we’ll bounce back.”

In the loss, though, Duke showed again how far it has progressed since it suffered ACC road losses at Notre Dame on Jan 4 and Clemson on Jan. 11. The way the Blue Devils played during that first week of league play — getting outrebounded, squandering second-half leads of 10 at Notre Dame and nine at Clemson — hardly resembles how Duke played Saturday night.

Yes Duke allowed the Orange to shoot 57.4 percent for the game, including 18 of 30 (60 percent) in the second half and overtime combined. But unlike the Clemson and Notre Dame games, when the Tigers and Irish shot similarly well, the reason was foul trouble that limited Parker and Jefferson in the second half and forced them to miss overtime.

Their absences allowed Orange forwards C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant, future NBA players, to combine to score 52 points.

“Fair and Grant were sensational,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Fair is a top pro pick. He’s a great player. And Grant is going to be a pro. I thought they played really well and we fought our hearts out. I can’t ask my team to play any harder than they played.”

That last line from Krzyzewski marks a difference in Duke. Following the loss at Clemson, the Blue Devils admitted that Clemson made the tougher plays consistently in the second half to beat them 72-59.

No one in either Syracuse orange or Duke blue questioned anyone’s toughness and desire in what became perhaps the best college basketball game so far this season.

“It was just a great game,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said. “I don’t think I’ve been involved in a better game here that I can remember where both teams played at such a high level. You can have close games, tough exciting games. But I don’t think I’ve seen a game where two really good defensive teams and it’s 91-89. Both teams just went after it. I can’t say enough about the quality of this game. It was the highest quality possible.”

Playing before a crowd of 35,446 – the largest to ever see an on-campus college basketball game – Duke and Syracuse played a game that began their lives together as ACC rivals.

“I’m sure when Jim and I are no longer coaching, the fact that we built good programs will produce some fantastic games,” Krzyzewski said. “It will conjure up memories of past performances of individuals and teams from those contests.”

Given the level of play Saturday night, the Feb. 22 game when Syracuse visits Cameron Indoor Stadium to play Duke figures to have even more hype surrounding it.

“Duke is tremendous,” Boeheim said. “Parker is a tremendous player, he is a load down there. Jefferson played as well as I’ve seen him play. Sulaimon. They have a tremendous team and they’re going to win a lot of games. They’re a very difficult team to play against.”

Krzyzewski said there’s room for another quality rivalry in the ACC other than the much-ballyhooed Duke-UNC games.

Even though he’d have rather walked out of the Carrier Dome with a win, he’s glad Duke-Syracuse is off to such a quality start.

“Rivalry doesn’t have to be hatred,” Krzyzewski said. “A great rivalry is built on respect. A great rivalry is built on the respect of excellence of your opponent. That’s why we’ve had a great rivalry with North Carolina. They have such a high level of excellence in their program. Obviously, Syracuse does and we do.”