Order has been restored in the three weeks since the officials declined to call a foul on Rakeem Christmas as Rodney Hood tried to throw home what could have been the game-winning bucket in the final seconds in overtime, thereby cementing Duke and Syracuse as the ACC’s preeminent rivalry, according to people who should have known better.
Heading into Saturday’s rematch, both Duke and Syracuse have lost, inadvertently putting Virginia entirely in control of the race for the ACC’s regular-season title. Syracuse’s undefeated season came to an abrupt end with a home loss to Boston College, whose only two previous ACC wins were against last-place Virginia Tech.
That was shocking. Duke’s loss Thursday at North Carolina was not, if only because it underlined exactly why their games mean so much, from the circumstances of the original postponement to the raucous atmosphere at the usually staid Smith Center to the Tar Heels’ comeback as they found a way to stymie the offensively potent Blue Devils and grind out a win.
Despite the Hall of Fame coaches in Mike Krzyzewski and Jim Boeheim, despite the high stakes and grand drama of their first meeting, Saturday will be only the sixth all-time meeting between Duke and Syracuse. The fifth, on Feb. 1, lived up to the considerable hype, impressively enough, but it was merely one game. Collectively, the two teams have spent 205 minutes on the court; Duke and North Carolina have spent 80 minutes together in overtimes alone.
By that standard, Duke and Syracuse still have a long way to go. It’s possible there may never be as much anticipation for one of their games as their first meeting this season. The rematch coming less than 48 hours after Thursday’s theatrics, with both Duke and North Carolina still reeling for different reasons, neatly drives that point home.
The first round of ACC expansion never captured the glory of the Florida State-Miami rivalry as it was supposed to – can’t blame the Seminoles for that one – nor did all that much to elevate the conference as a football league.
The second round was firmly and squarely focused on basketball. The results have been both impressive and immediate, to the point where the primacy of the league’s most marketable and historic rivalry has been challenged by Syracuse’s arrival – and once again emerged unscathed, just as it did during that brief period when tempers flared between Duke and Maryland.
Those two had their moments, especially with the surplus of venom on the Maryland side and when Gary Williams really had the Terrapins rolling, but it was always a sideshow, always an appetizer to the main course, particularly once Roy Williams arrived and restored the Tar Heels to their position alongside Duke among the national elite.
Krzyzewski sounded a warning call last year, before the arrival of Syracuse and Pittsburgh and Notre Dame, that Duke and North Carolina together had something that needed to be both defended and preserved as the character of the league changed.
Perhaps he anticipated the consequences of Syracuse’s arrival, another national power with a fan base in the Northeast and a Hall of Fame coach that would present a natural and unavoidable hurdle to the Blue Devils in a way that wouldn’t be the same for the Tar Heels.
He need not have fretted. When North Carolina’s students were provoked into a rare storming of the Smith Center court Thursday, it merely verified that talk of Duke and Syracuse surpassing Duke and North Carolina always was, and still is, merely talk.