How Syracuse-Duke just redefined the ACC

Pat Forde
Yahoo Sports
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How Syracuse-Duke just redefined the ACC

SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Scram, North Carolina. The Atlantic Coast Conference doesn't need you this year to have the must-watch, appointment-viewing matchup in college basketball.

Duke? Yes, the telegenic and charismatic Blue Devils are still one half of the marquee draw. But snowbound Syracuse – the geographic outlier with its reluctant convert of a coach – is Duke's most formidable and compelling opponent in 2013-14.

This is the new ACC, and it's a beautiful thing.

The league blueblood collided with the league's new blood Saturday, and the result was merely "epic," in the words of Orange coach Jim Boeheim. Syracuse 91, Duke 89, in overtime, was as good as non-NCAA tournament basketball gets – a multi-part melodrama with innumerable plot twists that played out in front of a thunderous, national on-campus record crowd of 35,446.

The other big weekend event in this region – the Super Bowl – will have a hard time living up to the drama and excellence of this game.

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"I don't think I've been involved in a better game in here that I can remember," Boeheim said, and he's been around for all of them in the 34-year history of the Carrier Dome. "I can't say enough about the quality of this game. It was the highest quality possible."

It was only the 1,255th game of his head-coaching career, so those superlatives carry some tonnage. What little hair the man still has on top of his head was sticking up as he entered the postgame press conference – as if the electricity of this game were coursing through the 69-year-old.

Mike Krzyzewski, the losing coach and a veteran of 1,276 college games, was no less complimentary of the quality of this game.

"I thought they played really well and I thought we played our hearts out," Krzyzewski said. "Geez, I can't ask our guys to play any harder. … How many people are in games like this? Hardly anybody."

The ACC's big expansion gambit, poaching Pittsburgh and Syracuse from the Big East, was a direct counter to the national trend of expanding to help football. This was a basketball move, and it is paying immediate and lavish dividends – even if it comes as a shock to the Tobacco Roadies' system.

The Panthers are 18-3 overall, 6-2 in the league and in third place. The Orange is the boss of the block, 21-0 and 8-0 in the conference.

Yet even though Syracuse has had the superior season to date, and ranks among the all-time elite programs, this game still had a prove-it feel to it. There is a chip-on-the-shoulder edge to the Orange program, rippling outward for decades from its insecure coach.

There is no doubt Syracuse wanted to demonstrate its worthiness on this day to kingpin Duke. As a madhouse. And a Mecca. And a championship program.

Job well done, Syracuse.

The irony of this outcome is that Mike Krzyzewski urged the league to think hoops in its expansion plans, while Boeheim was openly unhappy at first about joining the ACC. Now Duke is fighting to stay in contention for the league title, and the Orange is ruling the roost, and mopey ol' Jim is rhapsodizing about the greatest game in Carrier Dome history.

It never would have been played if he weren't dragged into this arrangement.

"It's great for our conference," Krzyzewski said.

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In a sport where everyone is obsessed with looking ahead – to March, to the NBA draft – this was a singular Saturday worth savoring. What the game means down the road is immaterial, or at least overrated. It should be appreciated on its own innumerable merits.

The two most memorable plays came in the final seconds – one at the end of regulation, one at the end of overtime. Duke made the first. Syracuse made the last and, ultimately, biggest.

Somehow trailing by only three points despite massive foul issues and a feral environment – "When we were on the bench, you couldn't hear the whistles," 'Cuse guard Trevor Cooney said – Duke had the final possession in regulation with 4.6 seconds left. The Blue Devils threw a 25-foot inbound pass to shifty Rasheed Sulaimon, who flashed down the left sideline and into what seemed like certain foul territory, in an effort to prevent a tying 3-pointer.

But C.J. Fair – who was brilliant, scoring 28 points – made only a tepid attempt at fouling Sulaimon. No whistle blew. The Duke guard sprinted past halfcourt and cut to the middle, shaking Cooney. Tyler Ennis made a feeble attempt at a back-tip, and Sulaimon rose to fire above Cooney's outstretched right hand.

The horn sounded at almost the precise time the ball ripped through the net.

Overtime. The huge, inflatable dome nearly deflated on the spot.

But the extra time still seemed like borrowed time for the Blue Devils. Center Amile Jefferson had fouled out. Forward Jabari Parker had fouled out. Duke would have to battle the long Syracuse frontcourt with a bunch of perimeter players biting at the Orange's ankles.

Yet powered by 3-point shots, the Blue Devils hung around. They trailed just 88-87 and had the ball when the second memorable play went down.

With the floor spread out, Duke wing Rodney Hood made a bold drive into the paint. The left-hander went for the gusto, rising to pound home a tomahawk dunk. That's when 6-foot-9 Syracuse center Rakeem Christmas entered the picture, hustling to contest.

The camera angle behind the backboard showed a collision of elbows, but also a collision of Christmas' right hand – the side of it, really – with the ball. That was Christmas' sixth blocked shot of the game, and it sent Hood's dunk attempt bounding off the back rim. The Orange made three free throws in the final 12.2 seconds to seal the victory.

"We were hoping there would be contact, and you have to finish it," Krzyzewski said. "It's a heck of a play. A big-time play."

Asked if he believed there was foul-worthy contact on the drive, K took the high road.

"This game is too good to talk about one play," he said.

But Krzyzewski also spent a good while protesting the no-call, one of the themes of the night. Plenty of ACC members had to get a chuckle out of seeing Coach K three feet out on the court, hands on hips, outraged at the offensive foul that ended Parker's night in the second half. Or at the sight of Krzyzewski slapping his arm toward the refs after the Hood dunk. Or Duke assistants Jeff Capel and Steve Wojciechowski losing it over Jefferson's fifth foul, which was away from the ball.

The man has gotten a few calls over the past three decades. And now here he was watching ACC newbie Syracuse shoot 32 free throws to Duke's 17.

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But that statistic points out two things: the Blue Devils' lack of interior presence and the maddening difficulty of beating the Orange 2-3 zone. You must take a ton of 3-pointers to beat the 'Cuse, and you must make a ton.

Duke did that, shooting 15-for-36 behind the arc, including a preposterous three-trey flurry from Tyler Thornton – who hadn't made that many in a game in nearly a year – that kept it from being run out late in regulation. And still Duke lost.

That's the kind of game it was. The start of something beautiful.

"This rivalry seemed like it's been going on for 30 years," Fair said. "But it's just beginning. My adrenaline is still pumping."

Rest assured, the Duke adrenaline will be pumping Feb. 22. That's the return date in Cameron Indoor Stadium – a place that is routinely crazy, but could be certifiably insane that day.

"When we go down there," Boeheim said, "we're going to have to have an unbelievable night."

Said Ennis: "That's going to be a ridiculous game."

The sequel has a lot to live up to.