On Friday, the Syracuse Orange take on the Duke Blue Devils in the Sweet 16. It’s notable for being an unexpected NCAA Tournament run, obviously. But we’re probably more anxious about the fact that Duke already knows (and runs a form of) SU’s zone.
That same 2-3 zone that’s given three straight unfamiliar opponents fits would be hard-pressed to do the same to the Blue Devils, a team that’s already beaten SU 60-44 this season. And has faced Syracuse at least once per season each year since 2013-14.
The Blue Devils are not the first conference opponent to face the Orange in the NCAA Tournament, though. They’re actually the sixth since the start of the Big East. So far, SU is 3-2 in those games -- which have become a bit more frequent of late.
You’ll likely remember the two most recent instances of this, at the very least. Syracuse lost to ACC foe North Carolina in the 2016 Final Four but beat Virginia in the Elite Eight to get there. And the Orange also beat Marquette in the Elite Eight back in 2013. Just two years prior, a third-seeded SU squad lost to those same Golden Eagles in the second round of the tournament.
But before that, the lone Big East matchup happened in 1987, when Syracuse bested Providence in the Final Four. They also beat Villanova in the second round of the 1980 NCAAs -- however that was the end of the season before ‘Nova joined the Big East (note: this has been corrected to reflect an earlier version which included this as a Big East game).
Interestingly, SU has made the Final Four in three of these seasons (two of the matchups were actually in the Final Four) -- and the Virginia and UNC games were part of the same year. Also, Duke makes for the fifth straight instance where the conference opponent swept the season series leading into the matchup. Before the Providence game in ‘87, SU had won both matchups that season.
It’s understandable why there were so few of these until recently. The original Big East was a smaller league and the brackets were set up to avoid conference matchups all that early. Recent superconference-sized leagues obviously make this tougher to avoid. In 2011, the Big East had a record 11 teams make the Big Dance, but the committee also placed a bunch of them in potential second round games (including the ill-fated SU/MU game).
Other odds and ends around Syracuse’s history in these matchups:
- This is the first time SU faces a conference opponent in the Sweet 16
- Syracuse has been a lower seed each year they’ve been involved in one of these games — a 2, 3, 4, 10 (twice in 2016) and now an 11
- Opponents have held five different seeds. In order: 6, 11, 3, 1 (twice in 2016), and a 2 for Duke this year
- The Orange have been the better seed two times, going 1-1 in those matchups; and they’re 2-1 as the lesser seed
None of this means Syracuse can beat Duke. But it’s no indication they CAN’T beat Duke either...