Duke-Syracuse matchup not quite as sweet as anticipated

January 13, 2019 09:41 PM

Many college basketball fans circled Monday night’s Syracuse/Duke matchup (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET) before the season had even started. 

All were aware that Duke was likely to be a national powerhouse led by superstar Zion Williamson. Syracuse was preseason #14 in the coaches' poll, #16 in the AP poll. This was going to be a Sweet 16 type battle. And that tricky zone defense of Syracuse just might be the ticket to derailing the Duke locomotive. 

A couple of months have passed. If anything, Williamson is even more outstanding than advertised given his all-around contributions beyond highlight reel dunks. But Syracuse has been a big disappointment. Respected computers now rate the Orange as a team more in the #30-35 range after home losses to the likes of Old Dominion and Buffalo. 

Instead of a Sweet 16-type battle, we get something closer to a second-round NCAA matchup at Cameron Indoor. 

If you’re just now paying attention to college hoops as football betting winds down, it’s important for you to know that Duke is more than a scoring juggernaut. Don’t just keep your eye on Zion. You’ll hear promotion for this game emphasizing “the offense of Duke” vs. “the defense of Syracuse.” Believe it or not, Duke has the superior defense too.

That’s hidden by pace. Duke is one of the fastest teams in the country, using speed to help maximize its talent advantages over opponents. Syracuse is on the slow end of the spectrum, as playing a zone defense forces opponents to work patiently for a good shot. When you look at points allowed “per possession,” Duke is one of the five best in the nation. Syracuse is still stout, but several rungs behind the Blue Devils. 

Look at these low points totals allowed by Duke after it was upset by Gonzaga in Maui.

Duke (-15) beat Indiana 90-69

Duke (-42.5) beat Stetson 113-49

Duke (-38) beat Hartford 84-54

Duke (-24.5) beat Yale 91-58 

Duke (-29.5) beat Princeton 101-50

Duke (-9.5) beat Texas Tech 69-58

Duke (-14.5) beat Clemson 87-68

Duke (-20.5) beat Wake Forest 87-65

Most of those featured a very fast-paced favorite in blowouts with extended garbage time. Yet, opponents couldn’t get much up on the board. The only non-cover on the list was still a rout of Hartford. Amazingly, since the loss to Gonzaga, Duke has been one of the most underrated teams in the country if you accept that point spreads reflect how a team is “rated” by a consensus of observers. 

Pace will likely be a determining factor in who covers Monday night. If Duke can impose its will in front of an avid crowd, Syracuse will get left in the dust. The visiting Orange must shorten the game with long possessions, hoping its tricky defense will befuddle a talented, but relatively inexperienced Blue Devils offense.

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