The kiss cam is going to be working overtime at the Carrier Dome on Saturday, with Syracuse University hosting Duke University in what is, by all reports, a sellout crowd for the ACC matchup on Valentine’s Day. Syracuse and Duke are obviously in very different places right now on the college basketball landscape, with the Blue Devils a favorite to win the national title while Syracuse isn’t even allowed to participate.
And the fact of the matter is that while it looks like Syracuse has nothing left to play for, that’s not true. There aren’t many stronger motivators than pride, and with so few games left this season, the Orange have a chance to make a statement against Duke. To quote the great Jimmy McGinty, who coached the replacement Washington Sentinels to a win over Dallas, for Syracuse there is no tomorrow, and that makes them all very dangerous people.
Did I just reference a cheesy Keanu Reeves football movie? You bet your ass I did.
But in reality, it’s a very true sentiment. The clock is ticking on the 2014-2015 season, and on Rakeem Christmas’s time in Orange. In addition to playing for pride and a desire to finish the season strong, Christmas has a chance to perform in the national spotlight in several of the remaining games, against a few of the top big men in the country. Every time he plays well against these elite players, it only bolsters his chances of hearing his name called at the NBA Draft.
The biggest test Rakeem will face all season comes tomorrow as the Blue Devils come to town, in the form of Jahlil Okafor. The 6-foot-11 freshman has been pretty much the consensus top pick in the 2015 NBA Draft for months now, with the kind of refined post game that’s making scouts salivate. The big bodied center is averaging 18.0 points and 9.1 rebounds per game, numbers that are virtually identical to Rakeem’s, while shooting 66.5% from the field. In other words, he’s going to be awfully tough for Syracuse to handle – particularly given how thin the Orange are in the post.
Since losing to Notre Dame by four points in South Bend on January 28, Duke has run off four straight wins, topping Virginia and Georgia Tech, and then annihilating the Irish 90-60 in a rematch at Cameron Indoor. Monday, the Blue Devils bested Florida State 73-70 to improve to 21-3 overall.
As good as Duke is – and make no mistake, they are legitimately one of the two or three best teams in America – they can be beaten. Aside from losing to Notre Dame, the Dukies also lost to NC State and were dominated by Miami. If you’re looking for a common thread as to how those three teams have beaten Duke, well, there really aren’t many. Duke’s shooting varied from game to game, both from the field and from long range. The commonalities that the team’s that have beat Duke have shared are making threes at a good clip (10-of-16 for NC State, 10-of-20 for Miami, 8-of-18 for Notre Dame) and limiting turnovers (10 for NC State, 11 for Miami and Notre Dame).
Two of those three losses came on the road, so that’s another piece of hopeful news for the Orange. Last season, the Blue Devils and Orange played a classic in the Carrier Dome to kick off the conference rivalry, but this is obviously a vastly different Syracuse team than last year. That doesn’t make it an impossible task, but it’s going to take a nearly flawless game for Syracuse. And this is an Orange team that hasn’t been able to put together a full 40 minutes all year.
Obviously, Christmas needs to stay out of foul trouble against Okafor, who even in losses this season has been dominant. He posted 23 points and 12 boards against NC State, 15 points and 15 boards against Miami, and had 22 points and 17 rebounds against Notre Dame. No matter what else is happening on the court, win or lose, chances are good that Okafor is going to get his points. It might be in Syracuse’s best interest to make the rest of the team beat them.
Unfortunately for Syracuse, there are plenty of strong players on this Duke roster outside of Okafor. Quinn Cook is going to be a handful at both ends for Kaleb Joseph, as the guard averages 14.7 points per game. Joseph and Trevor Cooney need to do a much better job defending the perimeter against Duke in general and Cook in particular. For the season, he’s shooting 39.6% from deep, so half-assed closeouts with arms at the sides are not going to cut it. Hopefully, this is something Jim Boeheim has been drilling into his guards all week.
Justise Winslow has been coming on of late, with the 6-foot-6 freshman scoring in double figures in each of the last five games after scoring just 12 points total in the four games prior to that stretch. Winslow averages 11.3 points and 5.3 rebounds, and can step outside and knock down shots. He’s hitting 36.4% from long range, and overall the Dukies are third in the ACC in three point percentage, hitting 37.8% collectively. That’s not exactly unexpected from one of Coach K’s teams of course.
Tyus Jones is another threat for Duke, with the 6-foot-1 freshman point guard taking the reins this year and allowing Cook to slide over and play the two. Jones averages 11.3 points and 5.3 assists, and is another player that the Orange have to keep an eye on when he’s on the perimeter. For the year, he’s shooting 39.5% from deep, and has hit at least two three pointers in five of the last seven games, including a 4-for-6 performance against Pitt. It is interesting to note, however, that in the team’s three losses, he’s just 1-for-9 from long distance. Of course, in the rematch against the Irish, Jones went 6-for-9 from three and scored 17 points, so maybe he already got his career game out of the way.
Amile Jefferson is another player who could give Syracuse in general and Tyler Roberson in particular some fits, since he’s basically the Roberson to Okafor’s Christmas. Jefferson averages 8.0 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, though the 6-foot-9 Philadelphia native hasn’t reached double figures in scoring since January 25, and hasn’t had more than five rebounds in a game since January 19.
As always, we have to look for the bench player who could erupt for a career high against the 2-3 zone, and the obvious candidate tomorrow is sophomore guard Matt Jones. The 6-foot-5 Jones plays significant minutes but averages just 5.5 points per game, though he hits 36.2% from distance. It feels like a no-brainer to suggest that if anyone is going to continue the trend of no-name players going off against the Orange, it’ll be Jones who does it for Duke.
Beating Duke is an order of the tallest variety. There may not be a better all-around offensive team in America, given Duke’s ability to score the basketball (8th in the country), shoot the basketball (6th in the country at 49.8% from the field), and rebound the basketball (39th in the country). The Blue Devils can be scored on, though, and that’s really where Syracuse needs to step up. Duke is just 131st in the nation in points allowed, and 139th in blocks despite the presence of Okafor in the middle.
Frankly, we can probably count on Okafor and Christmas basically canceling each other out in the lane, barring foul trouble for Rak. This is a game in which the Orange need to see contributions from the perimeter in a big way. Trevor Cooney has to break out of his shooting slump if the Orange want any chance of winning. Hitting 3-of-8 from deep against Boston College was a nice small step in the right direction, after 1-for-7 and 2-for-12 shooting performances in the previous two games, but he needs to keep trending upward for Syracuse to have any shot at beating Duke.
The Orange also need the Kaleb Joseph we saw in the second half of the Boston College game to keep his tenacity and aggressiveness up, because there will be room to drive and find his pull up jumpers in the lane against this Duke team. Another important note about this game: while we know that Syracuse lacks depth with just eight scholarship players available, Duke is in the exact same boat. The Blue Devils have just eight healthy scholarship players available for Saturday’s game, somewhat negating Syracuse’s lack of depth as the weakness it’s been all year.
One of the biggest things working in Syracuse’s favor will be playing in front of 35,000 screaming Orange fans, showing the team love on Valentine’s Day. The Orange will need every bit of that love to pull off the upset over the No. 4 Blue Devils. It’s a tall order, but it can be done.