The Syracuse Orange and Duke Blue Devils have never been rivals. Small ‘r’, Big ‘R’ or ALL CAPS “RIVALS” — the phrase just hasn’t stuck well enough.
Don’t get me wrong. These games have largely meant something since the Orange joined the ACC. SU itself wanted you to buy into the concept, as did then-United States Vice President Joe Biden. We pushed for it a bit ourselves as well, to hopefully conclude the search for our “true” post-Big East rival on the basketball court.
The matchups have possessed intensity, pomp and some circumstance. But rarely as much of the unbridled hate we once reveled in with our rivalries (see: Georgetown, UConn).
On Friday, the teams will meet for the eighth time since sharing a conference, with the Blue Devils owning a 4-3 lead thus far. Syracuse has never beaten Duke by more than three points, even pre-ACC, while two recent Duke wins since 2014 have been by double-digits. This year’s edition was an excruciating snooze -- a 60-44 victory for the home team at Cameron Indoor that has basketball pundits shuddering about the sequel.
Is this the game that finally lights the rivalry (small ‘r’) fuse for these programs?
As we’ve discussed previously, there’s ample reason to believe this can work, provided we ignore the Devils’ storied history with North Carolina to start. Both initial ACC games were historically great for different reasons. They’re both private schools with basketball heritage and long-time coaches. Those coaches are also friends, and Coach K has even borrowed Jim Boeheim’s zone at this point. At least a quarter of both universities are probably from New Jersey...
People (and not just the fans of both respective teams) are actually watching with great attention when they play. There is real theater involved, and at least the feeling of gravitas to this point so far.
During 2014’s 66-60 loss, I was watching with a large crowd of fellow Orange fans at the Parlor in Hollywood (LA’s game-watching spot) when one individual got up on a chair and removed his hoodie to reveal a Duke jersey. I’m honestly surprised he made it out of that bar alive.
But that’s all anxiety and stress and the old, pre-ACC feelings about Duke still populating this game a bit too. It feels like a “big deal” to beat them, just like it does when we beat North Carolina (I know, it’s been awhile). A lot of that’s because they’re typically good. There’s also an idea that Syracuse, a non-blueblood in the traditional sense, isn’t supposed to be able to compete.
All of those nebulous ideas have been the basis for any rivalry talk, however this weekend provides us with more, for once. In the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16, Duke now stands in the way of us actually attaining something (and then likely hanging it over our heads). We stand in Duke’s way too, of collecting a title they seem among the favored to collect as the tournament field narrows.
While we played with the feelings and ideas of “stakes” previously, this is the first time since joining the ACC that there are real consequences (and immediate ones) to this game. One NCAA Tournament contest can’t necessarily breed a rivalry — though our 2016 win over Virginia sure as hell tried. But the emotions around the last seven games in this series leading up to something like this? A close win or loss here could finally spark exactly right to turn SU-Duke into something more.
If not, well, it’s still a series I personally get excited for. And the biggest drawback of life post-Big East is the infrequency of those over the course of a full ACC season. If Duke wants to help us out a bit there starting Friday, great. If not, well, at least I still get to actually hate them when they play UNC...