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Syracuse vs. Duke: The Rivalry That Excellence Built

"Great rivalries don't have to be built on hatred. They're built on respect, on a respect for excellence" -Mike Krzyzewski, Feb 1, 2014.

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

It is an "instant classic."

Still only hours removed from the Syracuse Orange's near impossible 91-89 overtime victory over the Duke Blue Devils, no one who witnessed this game could make such a statement and be accused of overstatement. Indeed, the result exceeded the hype in a game that featured college basketball's two most successful coaches leading their undeniably great programs through the kind of drama usually reserved for the movies.

These two heavyweights gave each other their absolute best shot for 45 minutes in front of the largest on-campus crowd to witness a college basketball game...a crowd so jacked up with energy that each twist and turn was immensely amplified. That the players on both sides only "upped" their game in response to such intense emotion was another testament to just how good these teams really are (Duke is the #17 team in the nation???...please).

For me -- someone who has been watching Syracuse games since their last year at Manley Field House -- this game had a distinctly different feel from the other great games from our gone but never forgotten existence in the Big East. In place of the grit and grind of classic Big East rivalry games against Georgetown, UConn and others where the contests were often short on beauty and long on bruises, last night gave us all the kind of contest that any fan delights in watching. Syracuse is not unfamiliar with having teams that can play beautiful, flowing basketball, yet in the Big East, it seemed more often than not that our preferred style of play was countered by five big guys from a Northeast school hellbent on cynically slowing us down.

Yet last night, Duke gave us an opponent that was too good, or perhaps too proud, to play cynical basketball. Like them or hate them, Duke doesn't ever shrink from "the moment", and just as they always do, they played "Duke basketball" and dared their opponent to either stop them or play their own style of game even better. Syracuse, seemingly freed from the shackles of a Big East-style opponent and talented enough to match The Blue Devils strength for strength, gleefully chose the latter. The end result was perhaps the greatest game ever played at The Carrier Dome.

It was a great win for the Orange, and a great night for ACC basketball. One win doesn't so much signal a changing of the guard in the conference...that is complete nonsense. But it does signal that Syracuse is already up to the level of excellence that Duke and UNC have set, and the sense of mutual respect shared by players and fans at the final buzzer suggested that room is quickly being made for another great rivalry in this famous conference. One built on two great schools, 1,915 wins, and after one magical night: mutual respect.

Three weeks can't come soon enough...but we'll all have the warm memories of a truly great win to keep us warm until it does.