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Syracuse vs. Duke doesn’t have to be a rivalry to be important

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Does it matter if we’re rivals? This game has stakes every time out there.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Since joining the ACC, every time the Syracuse Orange have faced off with the Duke Blue Devils has featured some sort of “rivalry” talk.

Orange fans leaned into it hard in 2014, and the effort seemed to pay off. The teams played two classics, a 91-89 overtime win by SU at the Carrier Dome, and then a memorable (for other reasons) 66-60 Duke win at Cameron Indoor just a few weeks later. This very site was happy to stoke the fire, just like everyone else.

In 2015, Syracuse had a real shot to come away with a major upset on Valentine’s Day, before getting derailed late at the Dome. The second meeting that season was the only dud in the series, and the one that fuels some of the “decline” talk we’ve heard sprout up lately.

Last year was another classic, if ugly game in the matchup -- a 64-62 win that in part propelled the Orange to the NCAA Tournament.

This year? Well...

The fixation on the word “rivalry” has clouded our view of what this series has been and can become. Maybe it’s a product of Syracuse being defined by RIVALS since it became a nationally relevant program. Series with Georgetown and Connecticut were appointment viewing for invested fans and the national audience alike. The brawls those schools shared defined a conference, several programs and the fan bases that followed them -- the fan bases that STILL follow them, and yearn for that same heated vitriol with current conference opponents.

That’s why Syracuse (and especially its fans) tries to make Duke a rival. When rivals define you, not having one — a real one -- starts to decay your sense of who you are.

Duke’s taken, as the Daily Orange discussed on Wednesday. That’s fine. But the comparisons (as were made in the post) to oh-so-thirsty Maryland, or downtrodden NC State or Wake Forest are also off base. We don’t need to be seen as their alternative, little brother to North Carolina. This series is not important because we’re rivals (or Rivals or RIVALS).

It’s important because of what’s at stake each and every time these two teams tip off against one another.

The Orange and Blue Devils don’t need to share a place atop the ACC standings or a common geography to have both mutual respect and dislike for one another when they play. Each school has created a culture of consistent success over the course of decades, the likes of which automatically preside over each game.

Their hall of fame coaches help sell the narrative too, as ESPN was anxious to cash in on this week.

These games matter because of the separate successes experienced by these programs and fan bases. They have past and recent triumphs. They’ve collectively appeared in four of the last seven Final Fours.

Maryland, NC State, Wake Forest or any other would-be Duke “rival” beyond UNC can’t make those claims, and never really could. It’s what makes this series tough to define or nail down, but it’s also what keeps everyone (the larger viewing public, ESPN, all of us) hooked.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Maybe the narrative and importance changes when Jim Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski eventually retire. Perhaps conference realignment eventually catches up to the ACC. Or one of these programs (or both) hits an extended rough patch that makes the atmosphere around this matchup lukewarm at best.

But for now, this game is important each and every time it’s played. You don’t need a rivalry or the title of one to create that dynamic. In fact, plenty of ACTUAL rivalries can’t even make that claim.

In some ways, this arrangement, as the main college basketball event any time we tip off, is potentially better than a rivalry we could whip up with Duke or any other ACC opponent.

Just embrace it. You never know how long this is going to last.