Game of the Week: No. 17 Duke vs. No. 2 Syracuse
ESPN’s College Gameday will be heading to central New York, this Saturday for the first ever ACC showdown between the Syracuse Orange and the Duke Blue Devils. The two legendary college basketball programs have not faced each other since the 1998 NCAA Tournament, when Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils defeated Coach Jim Boeheim’s Orange in the Sweet Sixteen.
Syracuse is ranked second in the country in both the AP and USA Today polls. This season is just the latest in a string of great years for Syracuse, including last year when the Orange made an improbable run past Indiana and Marquette to reach the Final Four. With victories over Cal, Minnesota, Baylor, North Carolina, Indiana, Pittsburgh, and Villanova already this year, it would take a rather large collapse for the Orange to not receive a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament.
This year’s team is relying on both veterans and fresh faces. Senior C.J. Fair decided to return this season, after hearing mixed opinions of his draft stock. It’s a great thing for the Orange, as he is again one of the best players in the country, and is a leader on the fairly young squad. Fair, a natural lefty, has always been deadly on the drive to his left, but this season he has looked equally as comfortable going to the right.
Most notably, however, is the emergence of freshman point guard Tyler Ennis. The freshman has the poise of a senior, and it showed especially in the Maui Invitational. Ennis remained calm under pressure and was able to hit clutch shots and free throws down the stretch to put away the pesky Cal Golden Bears and Minnesota Golden Gophers, en route to a championship in Maui. Not only is he playing like a senior, but he is getting the entire team involved, averaging 5.5 assists per game. Ennis has been receiving frequent recognition as one of the top freshmen in the country, which is especially notable this year with such talented freshman as Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, and Julius Randle.
Trevor Cooney’s play has been much better this season, as the starting two guard is averaging 13.5 points per game, and seems to have overcome his confidence issues from a year ago. DaJuan Coleman went down for the year with a knee injury, but with Baye Moussa-Keita and Rakeem Christmas, they still can eat up space in the paint in Jim Boeheim’s patented 2-3 zone. Throw in the smooth small forward Jerami Grant and Duke transfer Michael Gbinije, and there is length on defense and athleticism on offense. Gbinije, Cooney, and Ennis are all shooting over 40% from deep, and again it is a team that is lethal when in transition. Syracuse is the second best team in the country for a reason.
For Duke, they are having a “down” season compared to expectations in Durham, but they are still a talented team that can legitimately play into the second weekend on the NCAA Tournament. The losses thus far were against Arizona, Kansas, Notre Dame, and Clemson, and they recently went into the Petersen Events Center and beat Pitt convincingly.
The Blue Devils are smaller than in years past, with freshman do-it-all player Jabari Parker leading the team in boards with 8.1 per game. Amile Jefferson is also doing a nice job on the boards, and Quinn Cook and Rodney Hood are averaging double-digit point totals, like Parker. Parker was benched against Notre Dame, but is playing like a lottery pick now. They also shoot well from behind the arc, which is hugely important to stretch Syracuse’s zone.
It should be a record-setting crowd at the Carrier Dome with a terrific environment for college basketball. The game also has significant ACC implications, and can be a significant win on each team’s resume when being evaluated by the selection committee.
Mike Gilbert is a freshman majoring in broadcast journalism. To contact him, email michael.gilbertPSU@gmail.com.