The last time that the Syracuse Orange ventured to Cameron Indoor Stadium wound up being a much talked about game for an incident that happened – well, not technically off the court, but close enough – rather than what happened on the court. That was the infamous Jim Boeheim Jacket Game, when the Hall of Fame coach reacted…oh, let’s say, “emotionally” to a charge called against CJ Fair. Saturday night, you’ll see that clip plenty of times. Hopefully for the Orange, the final result will be a little different.
Syracuse is riding a high late in the season, having knocked off a pair of top 15 teams within a week. Yes, there was the frustrating loss to Pittsburgh sandwiched in between, but wins over Louisville and on the road at Notre Dame more than make up for that stumble. And as Joyce Hergenhan pointed out on Syracusefan.com, those two wins have suggested something of a pattern that the Orange will be hoping to keep up not just on Saturday, but also Monday when they host Virginia for Senior Night.
See, as Joyce points out, Louisville is currently fourth in the ACC standings. Notre Dame is third. Duke is second, and Virginia is first. Could the Orange really knock off each of the top four teams in the conference, in perfect order?
It’ll obviously be tough to knock off Duke down on Tobacco Road. The Blue Devils are 25-3 overall and 12-3 in conference play, compared to 18-10 and 9-6 marks for the Orange. But the first meeting between the two teams was well played, with Syracuse taking a lead into halftime thanks to the red hot shooting of Michael Gbinije. Ultimately, Duke just wore down a tired Syracuse team, outscoring the Orange by 11 points after halftime to hand Syracuse the 80-72 loss.
One thing that will almost certainly be different this time out is the performance or Rakeem Christmas, who had his worst offensive game of the year in the first meeting with Jahlil Okafor. Christmas hit just 5-of-17 shots, frequently getting the ball in good position but being unable to finish. I would be surprised if he has the same shooting woes on Saturday. The first meeting with Duke showed that he clearly out classes the Blue Devil big men from an athletic standpoint, but he just could not buy a friendly roll on any of his bunnies and jump hooks.
Of course on the other side of that is Okafor, the probable number one pick in the 2015 NBA Draft who went off for 23 points and 13 boards in the first meeting. Okafor just scored 30 in Duke’s last game, though that was a shockingly tight affair with lowly Virginia Tech in which the Blue Devils needed overtime to emerge with the win.
Like Syracuse, Duke is forced to play with a very short bench. Only eight players have seen significant minutes, and in some recent games, the Coach K’s bench has been decidedly Boeheim-esque. In the team’s overtime win against North Carolina, three players got minutes off the bench, but two of them – Marshall Plumlee and Grayson Allen – combined for just 11 minutes of action. The team’s last game against Virginia Tech was similar, with Plumlee logging six minutes while Allen played just seven.
Maybe more noteworthy from the last game was Amile Jefferson’s move to the bench, replaced in the starting lineup by Matt Jones. That was actually the second straight start for Jones, who first moved into the lineup against Clemson as Okafor sat out with an ankle injury, but the Dukies rolled to a 22 point victory anyway. With Okafor back in the lineup, Jones has remained a starter as Coach K has chosen to go with a smaller, more skilled lineup. Jefferson brings leadership, athleticism, size, and energy, but Jones gives Duke another designated shooter. The 6-foot-5 sophomore from DeSoto, Texas is hitting 36.6% from beyond the arc this season.
Now, whether that lineup remains in place against a bigger, stronger, more athletic team like Syracuse is anyone’s guess. Jefferson could very well find his way back into the lineup to help Duke deal with the size and athleticism of guys like Rakeem Christmas and Tyler Roberson. Outside of Okafor, Duke didn’t start anyone over 6-foot-6 in the win over Virginia Tech, with Jefferson logging just 14 minutes off the bench. Don’t be surprised to see Jefferson back in the lineup to help battle on the boards, however.
But let’s be honest, at the end of the day we all know what Syracuse needs to do in order to keep this game close. The Orange need the Trevor Cooney from the final minutes of the Notre Dame game to stick around, hopefully with his back issues a thing of the past. Rakeem Christmas needs to avoid the foul trouble he had against Notre Dame, because unlike the Irish, the Blue Devils actually do have an elite post player who will take every advantage he can get.
Michael Gbinije needs to round back into form after a couple of subpar games (he’s scored 12 points in each of the last two, but has hit just 6-of-17 shots, including 1-of-5 from three, with seven total turnovers in those two games). The good news is that Syracuse has seemingly gotten the point, at long last, that it’s an interior oriented team, and not a three point shooting team. The Orange have executed much better offensively when the focus has been working the offense through Rakeem Christmas, rather than hoisting perimeter jumpers and hoping for the best.
Tyler Roberson had perhaps the best game of his career the last time the Orange and Blue Devils met, and in the last few games, BJ Johnson and Ron Patterson have both stepped up considerably – Johnson in particular. This couldn’t come at a better time, since it really was largely a matter of the Orange just getting too worn down to be able to compete with Duke down the stretch in the Carrier Dome. The added depth and hopefully continued hot shooting of Johnson will be significantly improve the team’s chances of pulling off a third straight win over a ranked team.
A lot of things need to go right for Syracuse to pull out the victory in a notoriously difficult place to win. But overall, the Orange have been trending up and playing, by and large, their best ball of the season over the past few games. The heart, pride, and grit on display is a testament to these players who have nothing tangible to play for, and if they can somehow get to 20 victories, it’ll have to go down as one of the best coaching jobs in Jim Boeheim’s tenure, quite frankly. Or at least, equal parts great coaching and just sheer perseverance from an outstanding group of young men.