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Against Duke, we’ll get a better sense of Syracuse’s potential

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How much has SU improved?

NCAA Basketball: Syracuse at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

When the Syracuse Orange men’s basketball team faces No. 9 Duke on Saturday, it will get a chance to prove whether it belongs in the NCAA Tournament conversation it’s recently re-entered.

The Orange showed their floor in early-season blowouts to Virginia, Oklahoma State and Penn State. Those were part of SU’s 1-7 record against power conference opponents to start the year, ending in a Jan. 7 home loss of Virginia Tech that put the team at 8-7 overall.

After upsetting then-No. 18 Virginia on the road on Jan. 11, instilling some optimism again in the season, the Orange went on a five-game winning streak in ACC play. And during that time, a young SU team showed that it had improved: the offensive approach evolved, Elijah Hughes emerged as the ACC’s leading scorer, Buddy Boeheim found his stroke, and the Orange frontcourt became more of a presence.

Tuesday’s last-second loss to Clemson doesn’t negate SU’s recent success. The Orange, playing on the road in an arena that Duke lost in two weeks earlier, were without frontcourt starters Marek Dolezaj and Bourama Sidibe (who fouled out) for the last several minutes of the game.

But SU’s potential — their ceiling — is still a mystery. The Orange have only faced two teams all season currently ranked in the AP Top 25: Penn State (now 24th) on Nov. 29 and Iowa (18th) on Dec. 3. SU lost each game by double digits, and although recent results suggest that the Orange would fare better now, that’s all speculation. Five straight ACC wins are impressive, but they came against just one team not below SU in the conference standings (Virginia, tied at 6-4).

Duke’s visit to the Carrier Dome on Saturday night will mark the Orange’s first opportunity for a win against a top-10 team. SU has improved to the point where it can beat decent opponents without playing a complete game on both ends of the court — which seemed impossible a few months ago. But for a Syracuse victory against any one of the ACC’s elite trio of Duke, Florida State or Louisville, a task seemingly necessary for an NCAA Tournament bid, SU will likely have to put forth its best performance yet.

The three-pointers need to be falling. The 2-3, unreliable and requiring time that this young Syracuse team doesn’t have, will need to tighten up. The Orange, once again down to a seven- or eight-man rotation, need productivity from each and every position. And SU can’t afford to make the unforced errors that cost them the last game against Clemson. The question is if this team is capable of all of that vs. top competition.