It was my sophomore year at Syracuse. I had just missed the Final Four run of 1996 and had suffered through the NIT-bound 1997 season. The successful world of Syracuse basketball I had been promised was only now coming to fruition and the Orange(men) were back in their rightful place.
Myself and two friends headed down to Harry's to watch the game. I don't really know why Harry's and not, say, Faegan's or Darwin's. Especially when I can count on one hand the number of times I ever set foot in Harry's. Nevertheless, there we were, huddled around a tiny table with our pitcher of watery Miller Lite, watching 5-seed Syracuse go toe-to-toe with mighty No. 1-seed Duke.
Syracuse was not expected to win and win they did not. The final score was 80-67 and my memory of the game is that the outcome was very rarely in doubt. Duke was just simply better. On another level. We left Harry's that night bummed but not entirely shocked.
That other level is something the Syracuse basketball program has strived to become a permanent member of ever since. The 2003 National Title was our ticket in. The success of the last five seasons have been proof we're committed to the cause. In terms of wins, rankings and NCAA Tournament success, Syracuse has certainly made its case.
But…at the end of the day, are we on that elite level with Duke? Are we really? Since that 1998 season, Syracuse has two Final Four appearances and a National Title. Duke has four Final Fours and two titles. Schools like UNC, Michigan State, UConn and Kansas can point to similar stats as Duke's too.
Syracuse has been awash in amazing regular-season statistics lately. We're 88-2 in the first 18 games of each of the last five years. We're the first school to start seasons with 20-win starts twice in three years since 1986. We are inarguably the best college basketball program in the nation between November, December and early January.
But people don't look back at Duke and say Duke is the premiere college basketball program in the nation because they were amazing in December. They say it because Duke goes to Final Fours so often, it often feels weird not to see them there.
Syracuse is coming off of a Final Four run and can claim two in the last ten seasons, but, that's not the same thing.
So if you're wondering what Syracuse is playing for now when they line-up against Duke, this is it. Yes, Saturday's game is just the first of many and the outcome will not be the deciding factor of where these two programs end up in March. But just as Syracuse's success was once measured against Georgetown's and UConn's, it will now be measured head-to-head with Duke's.
Winning on Saturday is important. Winning more often than Duke in April is going to be more important from now on.