ESPN ads touting the instant rivalry between Syracuse and Duke, a commodity made for TV rather than grown whole on the vine of tradition, seemed a bit hollow in the aftermath of Boston College’s win on Wednesday night and Duke’s loss at UNC the following evening.
But aturday’s visit by the Orange to Durham still merits hype and close attention. A meeting of top 5 (for now) teams remains intriguing -- prime broadcast inventory.
There’s bound to be curiosity, too, about how Jim Boeheim’s team will respond to losing its perfect season and, likely, its No. 1 standing in the polls.
But some of the high-stakes drama was snatched from the rematch of Syracuse’s overtime win over Duke, melted by BC as thoroughly as the sun dispatched the snow that postponed Duke’s visit to Chapel Hill a week earlier.
The Carolina-Duke rivalry has a bit more legs than Syracuse-Duke, and a significantly deeper pool of fan animosity. How else to explain the UNC supporters who asserted that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski used the snowfall as an excuse to avoid playing at the Smith Center in front of a student-dominated crowd?
The notion was unwitting self-parody, distrust taken to preposterous lengths.
Besides, Coach K wasn’t the driver of the team bus that couldn’t make it to Duke’s campus. Coaches of top teams aren’t as omnipotent as they appear on television.
This limited clout is the case even when it comes to familiar bench denizens such as Hall of Famers Krzyzewski and Boeheim, the most prolific winners among Division I men’s coaches and owners of multiple national championships. Their presence on the sidelines doesn’t guarantee their teams will win. Just as it’s not their fault if, huff and puff as they will, the ball doesn’t bounce their way.
Although it sure seems to bounce their way more often than not.
BC’s stunning win at Syracuse was a prime example of the limits of such control - unless it was by Donahue, whose three-point oriented offense converted 11 of 22 from the bonusphere against the Orange.
"It's been an emotional week for us at BC, an emotional season," Donahue said in a TV interview following the Eagles’ 62-59 overtime victory. "We lost one of our colleagues in Dick Kelley (a popular 48-year-old sports publicist at the school who died on Tuesday from ALS). The emotions of this game, I'm speechless. I'm so happy for our guys and all the adversity we've faced this year. Obviously, a huge win for the program.”
Donahue’s team, now 7-19, is usually identified as “disappointing Boston College,”for good reasons there’s no need to rehash here. What matters is that, for all its struggles, BC is still relevant, a point Donahue emphasized during his verbal victory lap by stressing the win’s potential impact on recruiting.
It also matters that teams out of contention in the ACC, which long prided itself on its top-to-bottom balance, are still capable of swatting the big guys.
Just a few weeks ago a former ACC head coach took note of the weakness in the ACC’s lower echelons.
“The bottom is ridiculous. I’ve never seen anything like this,” he said. “How did that happen? I’ve watched the last couple of years. Are the players that bad?”
Six of 15 ACC teams are now in danger of finishing at .500 or worse. Wake, with six straight losses, the league’s longest current skid, may suffer its fourth losing season in Jeff Bzdelik’s four years on the job.
In fact, not long before Bzdelik arrived the Demon Deacons were a No. 1-ranked squad that, like Syracuse, was upset by a non-ranked ACC opponent. That was on Jan. 21, 2009 when Virginia Tech, en route to a tie for seventh place in a 12-team league, beat the Deacs at home.
Not surprisingly, the ACC’s No. 1s over the past decade have been most vulnerable on the road.
That’s especially true for Duke, which since 2004 lost nine times as the nation’s top-ranked team. All but one of those defeats came away from Cameron Indoor Stadium. (The exception was against UNC in 2006.) Half of Duke’s road losses in those circumstances were against unranked teams.
North Carolina lost six times since 2007 as No. 1. Four of those defeats came at the hands of unranked opponents. Two came at the Smith Center, notably on Jan. 4, 2009 against Boston College.
Al Skinner’s Eagles, destined for a fifth-place ACC tie, shocked an undefeated Tar Heel squad that was en route to winning the ‘09 NCAA championship. The 85-78 win was fueled in part by an unexpected performance from guard Reggie Jackson. A reserve all year, the freshman had 17 crucial points in 26 minutes against UNC.
A little more than five years later another coach and another Jackson, Lonnie, helped BC put away top-ranked Syracuse. The junior made all four of his free throws in the final 26.2 seconds, finishing with 10 points.
“I said at halftime, 'Let's just win ugly, do whatever it takes,’” Donahue said after upending the Orange. “That's how you beat Syracuse; you do whatever you have to do."
That included having Jackson, then a 56.3 percent foul shooter at the time, come through on every one of his pressure-packed attempts at the Carrier Dome, securing the Eagles’ biggest win since that previous Jackson came through against UNC five years ago.