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Syracuse-Duke rivalry expected to bring out 30,000-plus, even in down year

Is Wednesday the biggest game of the year?

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Duke
Syracuse Orange players including forward Tyler Lydon (20) and forward Michael Gbinije (0) celebrate their 64-62 win over the Duke Blue Devils in their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, Syracuse officials told Syracuse.com that nearly 28,000 tickets have already been sold for Wednesday’s matchup with the 10th-ranked Duke Blue Devils.

The Orange have played in front of a crowd of 30,000-or-more 80 times since the Carrier Dome opened in 1980, and it’s looking like Wednesday will be the 81st.

It’s been nearly two years since Syracuse has played in front of 30,000-plus fans at the Dome. The last game was Feb. 15, 2015 against Pittsburgh, according to Syracuse.com’s Mike Waters.

Even on a down year for Syracuse at 16-12 overall and 8-7 in league play, this game still means something to both programs, the fans and the conference.

It’s not Duke-North Carolina but any stretch of the imagination, but this rivalry does continue to grow.

We go back to the first matchup, which took place in front of 35,000-plus at the Carrier Dome. The Orange was victorious in overtime, 91-89. C.J. Fair scored a game-high 28 points, Jerami Grant had 24 and Tyler Ennis finished with 14 points and nine assists.

And as for how the rivalry intensified later that season? Well, we all know that story.

The following year, Duke visited the Carrier Dome on Valentine’s Day and left with a win, 80-72. This, of course, was the season where the Orange had issued a self-imposed postseason ban due to an ongoing NCAA investigation.

SU traveled to Cameron Indoor a few weeks later and lost, 73-54. Duke went on to win the national championship that year behind Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow.

And then there was last season when the Orange pulled off the unthinkable and won at Cameron Indoor, 64-62. This, among a few other games, was a main reason the Orange made the NCAA Tournament and ultimately advanced to the Final Four.

But this year’s game has a different feel to it. Duke, after struggling earlier in the season and losing Coach K for a few weeks due to back surgery, is finally catching its stride at the right time.

Freshman Jayson Tatum is playing at an elite level and scored 28 points on the road against Virginia two games ago, and followed that up with a 19-point performance against Wake Forest.

Jim Boeheim said during his Monday teleconference that Duke has five or six guys who can score 25-plus points each night. And while normally Jim exaggerates, he’s spot-on with this quote.

Whether it’s Matt Jones, Grayson Allen, Tatum, Luke Kennard, Harry Giles (who has struggled but his capable to do really anything), or Frank Jackson — Duke is scary good.

And its personnel is built to beat the 2-3 zone. Coach K will have the chance to put four or five different guys at the high post, all of which can hit from mid-range or drive to the basket. When Tyler Lydon is forced to play the man at the free-throw line, will Taurean Thompson get beat back door consistently from the wing?

History says yes.

But it goes beyond that because the Blue Devils also have a plethora of shooters on their roster.

Duke has five guys who shoot over 35 percent from 3, including Kennard who shoots over 45 percent from distance.

This game also goes past the basketball court with coach K and coach Boeheim — who are best friends.

After Boeheim earned his 1,000th career victory earlier this season against Virginia, coach K called him that night to congratulate him. These two are the only D-I men’s coaches to accomplish this feat, which makes it all the more special when they go at it on Wednesday.

No matter how you look at it, it’s two of the all-time greats going head-to-head. What’s more exciting than that?

And as for SU, this week appears to be a make-or-break two-game stretch. After hosting No. 10 Duke on Wednesday, the Orange travels to No. 8 Louisville on Sunday. The Orange are desperate for another monumental win after losing three-straight.

The good news? Syracuse controls its own destiny. The bad news? Duke and Louisville are as tough as it gets in the ACC.