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Next Up - Syracuse

Time: 7:00 || Venue: Carrier Dome || Video: ESPN

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NCAA Basketball: Wake Forest at Duke
Feb 18, 2017; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Luke Kennard (5) and forward Jayson Tatum (0) are all smiles as they head down the court in the closing seconds in the second half of their game against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons at Cameron Indoor Stadium. 
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Next up for Duke is Syracuse and we must say this has turned into a nice rivalry in short order and a trip to the Snow Dome is never easy.

Duke and Syracuse have had odd seasons in many respects. Both teams have struggled with defense and Syracuse is definitely a bubble team at this point - which works to Syracuse’s advantage.

A win over Duke would really help to impress the committee. And with three games left, there aren’t many choices. The only other big win is on the road at Louisville and this team hasn’t done well on the road this year. Syracuse closes out at home with Georgia Tech, and as admirable as Tech has been this season, it’s not going to help Syracuse that much (assuming they win, which is not at all certain).

So: barring a great run in the ACC Tournament, Syracuse has one last chance and Duke is it.

You think the Orange will show up?

We sure do. They’re going to show up like Larry Bird promised to do in Cleveland once - with both barrels.

Duke’s job is to match what promises to be an overwhelming intensity. And the Dome doesn’t help either.

Syracuse is a bit off its feed this season as we mentioned. Boeheim’s bunch was 11-9 on January 21st when the Orange began a five-game win streak. A win is a win and the win over Florida State - 82-72 - was impressive.

The win over Wake Forest was by just six though and Syracuse beat Virginia by four and beat Clemson on a last-second jumper. The win over NC State came down to a great shot to put the game in overtime.

They all count, but they could have easily gone the other way as the last three games have.

Louisville was an OT loss. Pitt was just five points and Georgia Tech was six.

Syracuse is now 16-12 and honestly that’s an NIT record.

So yes this game is important.

Syracuse does have talent. Grad student transfers Andrew White and John Gillon have been solid offensively. Tyler Lydon is a tremendously talented forward. He’s had some real ups and downs this year but the guy can really play. The other forward named Tyler, Tyler Roberson, has more talent but not nearly the intensity; as a senior, he’s coming off the bench and averaging about a double nickel.

DaJuan Coleman has had an injury-plagued career and at this point, he’s just finishing up as a reserve. It’s really a shame. He was projected as a sure-fire NBA prospect. He hasn’t played since the Wake Forest game.

7-2 Paschal Chukwu, who would surely have helped the zone, has had to sit out with a serious eye injury. That’s two big men Syracuse doesn’t have. 6-10 Freshman Taurean Thompson is very promising, but it takes a while to master Boeheim’s 2-3 zone and he’s not there yet.

Matthew Moyer has also been out all season with a foot injury and is redshirting.

Against Louisville Jim Boeheim went with just seven players even though three of them finished with four fouls.

Earlier this season, actually more than once, Boeheim ripped his team’s defense. In fairness, he has a seven-man rotation and Thompson and Tyus Battle are freshmen while Lydon and guard Frank Howard are sophomores.

White and Gillon are just first-year guys at Syracuse. Coleman is a non-factor currently and Roberson, despite great talent, has been really erratic. Remember his brilliant performance at Duke? The one where he had 20 rebounds in 30 minutes?

He’s capable of that kind of output but hasn’t gotten there often. Last season Boeheim ripped him so hard after one game that his mother lashed out at the coach.

Syracuse has had a hard time making it work consistently this year but the talent is there. Roberson’s was obvious last year. Lydon is a future pro, as is Battle and probably Thompson. Gillon exploded at State for 43. And White can certainly fill it up.

Syracuse’s biggest issue has been defense and playing consistently well. Emotions are powerful things though and if Syracuse turns it up, they can ride that all the way home.

For Duke, currently riding a seven-game season re-defining win streak, it’s also a big game.

Win this one and Duke puts daylight between itself and Florida State and Notre Dame. Either Louisville or UNC will lose Wednesday night too, so if Duke manages to beat Syracuse, it will own a share of first place in the ACC.

Louisville still has to host Syracuse, then travel to dangerous Wake Forest before finishing up with Notre Dame at home.

After Louisville’s visit, UNC goes to Pitt, then Virginia before the traditional closer against the Blue Devils.

The Blue Devils go to Miami, then host Florida State before the trip down 15-501.

There’s a lot at stake in other words and little margin for error.

Duke will need a solid game from everyone but mostly Luke Kennard, who has been a superb force for Duke this year, Jayson Tatum, who has emerged as a versatile and confident freshman forward, and Grayson Allen, who is still dealing with foot issues.

When people mention critical players for Duke, they start with those three but Amile Jefferson is just as key. He anchors the defense and is a superb senior leader in the mold of Lance Thomas or Quinn Cook.

In a way, though, the biggest badass on Duke’s roster is Matt Jones. We sometimes call Kennard Little Larry because he has a touch of Larry Bird’s flair for the game. We’re not comparing him mind you, just saying that he has a bit of what Bird had, which is the ability to organize the game around himself. He is almost always balanced, he can nearly always get a shot off, and he sees subtle things in the game that others miss. You’re forced to deal with him and when you do, he burns you, one way or another.

We’ll never see another Bird, but having a Little Larry is pretty cool too.

Well, Jones is like a little Battier.

When things aren’t working well, he steps up and does....something.

He hits a three. He gets a steal. He picks up any guard or forward on the floor and makes their life miserable.

Someone asked Battier about his defense at one point and he said “Coach K just tells me to run around and make things happen.”

Words to that effect anyway.

Jones is a wonderful asset. Remember what he did to Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker?

He is the lowest scoring badass Duke’s had in years.

So we’ll have to wait to see what happens, but both teams know this is a huge game and both coaches have a knack of getting the absolute best effort out of their players in a game like this.

Game on.

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