Duke is in an unfamiliar situation in the Sweet 16 — playing a familiar face.
The No. 2-seeded Blue Devils will face No. 11 Syracuse, who upset Michigan State to secure the date with Duke in Omaha on Friday. The game will take place a mere 27 days after Duke beat the Orange in Cameron Indoor Stadium, 60-44, near the end of the ACC regular season.
This is just the second time in program history that Duke will face an ACC opponent in an NCAA Tournament rematch. The game will have a tough bar to top — the first rematch occurred in the 2001 Final Four, when Duke stormed back from a 22-point first-half deficit to beat Maryland in the year’s fourth matchup between the two ACC rivals.
Playing a conference foe in March is nothing new for the Orange. Syracuse beat Big East opponents Villanova (1980) and Providence (1987 Final Four) and split two games with Marquette (losing in 2011 and winning in 2013).
Since moving to the ACC, Syracuse has had a pair of games against conference rivals. In 2016, the No. 10 Orange upset top-seed Virginia to advance to the Final Four. There, coach Jim Boeheim’s squad was sent packing by North Carolina in a 17-point drubbing.
It’s tough to say who has the advantage in the upcoming rematch between Syracuse and Duke. Clearly, teams in this year’s tournament have struggled to adapt to Jim Boeheim’s famed matchup zone defense, so Duke’s familiarity with it should give the Blue Devils an edge.
“A lot of people don’t play zone,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after the February game, “but we have to figure that out. … The two things that are really the toughest things that you can’t simulate when you’re playing really good people are length and quickness. What you think you see, and even if you’re in the stands what you think you see, when you’re on the court, I’m not sure you’d see it. It’s difficult.”
Of course, Duke’s advantage is negated by the fact that, starting with the Syracuse game, the Blue Devils have resorted to playing a zone defense of their own, almost exclusively. Krzyzewski, who coached with Jim Boeheim as part of Team USA for years, has admitted to borrowing heavily from Syracuse’s zone principles. So the familiarity will cut both ways in the game.
“I don’t think that Coach K should really be allowed to play zone,” Boeheim joked after the loss in Cameron.
Neither team did a stellar job in coping with the opposing zone in the first game. Syracuse’s Oshae Brissett struggled to a 2-of-13 shooting night, and Orange guards Frank Howard and Tyus Battle combined to shoot 8 of 26.
Duke wasn’t any better. Trevon Duval shot 1 of 8, Gary Trent Jr. 2 of 11, and Grayson Allen missed all six of his 3-point attempts. Duke didn’t hit a 3-pointer until 7:32 remained and was just 2 of 18 from long range on the day, looking for a long time like they would go without a made three for the first time since the 1989 season.
“Open shots were tough to come by,” Krzyzewski said. “None of our perimeter guys had good shooting days because they played good defense.”
There’s a chance the familiar faces won’t stop with the Sweet 16 game. The winner of that game could end up facing Clemson for a berth in the Final Four. The Tigers will face No. 1 seed Kansas in the early game on Friday.
It’s the first time since 1986 that three of the four teams in a regional are all from the same conference. LSU, Kentucky and Alabama advanced to the Atlanta regional that year, with LSU emerging as the Final Four team.
Duke played Clemson just once this season, winning 66-57 on the road in a game that ACC Player of the Year Marvin Bagley III missed due to injury. The Blue Devils built a 10-point second-half lead, only to see Clemson tie the game late on a rally. Clemson also played short-handed, as point guard Shelton Mitchell missed the game with a concussion.
“The guys on the court just put their hearts on the floor,” Krzyzewski said afterward. “It was tough to score points today. I thought both teams played outstanding defense and points were tough to come by.”
With two conference foes who feature stiff defenses and little fear of Duke’s star-packed lineup, as well as top-seed Kansas, the Blue Devils will have to earn a Final Four berth the hard way this weekend.