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Can Syracuse basketball spring a Duke upset, and how these Blue Devils compare to past Duke champs

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The Duke Blue Devils moved closer to their first ACC regular-season championship since 2010 with a 65-61 win over Virginia on Wednesday night, also remaining in position for what would be, stunningly, their first outright ACC regular-season title since the 2005-06 team earned that distinction. Mike Krzyzewski and Co. (24-4, 14-3) are a full game ahead of second-place Notre Dame (20-8, 13-4) heading into Saturday's Sonic Blockbuster matchup at the Syracuse Orange (6 p.m. ET, ESPN and ESPN app).

What would an ACC title say about this Duke team? That 2010 Blue Devils team went on to win a national championship, but the aforementioned 2006 group was upset by LSU in the Sweet 16, so what should we take away -- if anything -- if Duke finishes the job and wins the regular-season trophy? Meanwhile, Syracuse (15-13, 9-8) will be looking to improve its seed in the conference tournament -- and avoid facing Duke in the quarterfinals -- for its best shot at the NCAA tournament.

ESPN's expert group of Myron Medcalf, Jeff Borzello, John Gasaway and Joe Lunardi compared this season's unit to the great Duke teams of the past, while also sizing up Syracuse's chances to pull the upset and stay hot at the ACC tournament in Brooklyn in a couple of weeks' time.


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Moore's half-court dime finds Griffin for a Duke dunk

Duke forward Wendell Moore Jr. bounces a pass from half court to AJ Griffin for a one-handed dunk.

Which Duke team from years past does this group most resemble to you? What does that resemblance say about the 2021-22 team's ability to make an NCAA tournament run?

Medcalf: Well, this wouldn't be any fun if we didn't try to make this comparison. How about the 2009-10 national championship team? ("Myron, that's a terrible comparison." I know, Borzello. I know.) But hear me out. Paolo Banchero and Co. do not really play like any team from Duke's past. But the size in the lineup makes me think about that group in 2010 that beat Butler in the national title game when Gordon Hayward's shot clanked off the rim.

That team had a 6-foot-5 point guard in Jon Scheyer. Nolan Smith (6-2) could play both guard spots. Lance Thomas (6-8) was a handful at small forward. Kyle Singler -- we don't really give Singler the credit he deserves for that run -- was a 6-8 shooter who made 40% of his 3-point attempts that season. Brian Zoubek (7-1), Mason Plumlee (6-10) and Miles Plumlee (6-8) were key contributors in the paint. Singler, Smith and the Plumlee brothers were all NBA draft picks.

This season, Coach K can go with Wendell Moore Jr., (6-5), Trevor Keels (6-4 and built like an NFL linebacker), AJ Griffin (6-6), Banchero (6-10) and Mark Williams (7-0). That Duke squad that beat Butler had a clear size advantage in the title game. And Duke's current combination of size, skill and physical ability also allows it to create mismatches at every position. This group is more talented than that 2010 team, so I could certainly see today's Blue Devils using their size advantage at every spot -- remember, that 2010 squad had NBA talent, too -- to make a run in the NCAA tournament.

Borzello: I don't really think it resembles any past team all that closely, but I think one of the key tenets of this year's Blue Devils is their effectiveness without a pure point guard on the floor. Coach K moved Jeremy Roach to the bench and inserted Griffin into the starting lineup, leaving most of the playmaking duties to bigger perimeter players Moore and Keels. Duke's 2016 and 2017 teams had Grayson Allen -- a better scorer than passer -- handling a lot of the distribution duties. Those teams were also good, not great, from 3-point range (particularly the 2017 team). They also had Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum as matchup nightmare-type scorers, if you're trying to think of a parallel for Banchero.

But the 2022 version is better, and I think this team has a significantly higher ceiling than both of those teams, as neither one got past the Sweet 16. The 2022 Blue Devils are legitimate national championship contenders.

Gasaway: Fellow roundtable members, stop! We've been given a fiendishly clever trick question. This group doesn't really resemble any Duke team from past years, with one categorical exception. The current team is once again young and brimming with talent heading to the NBA. Other than that, Coach K came up with a new twist for his farewell season.

When the Blue Devils play their "projected to go in the first 35 picks" lineup (Banchero, Griffin, Williams, Keels, Moore), opponents are confronted with four scorers arrayed around a potentially game-altering shot-blocker who likes to dunk. We've never seen anything quite like that before at Cameron. Duke hasn't had a rim defender with a similar block percentage who played as many minutes as Williams since another Williams -- Shelden. That was so long ago, the incoming coach was too young (barely) to have played with that guy.

Lunardi: It's hard to compare, if only because no recent Duke team has played in such a soft ACC. This limits both the challenges and the opportunities of the current Blue Devils.

Off the top of my head, I'd say the 2017-18 team built around freshman forward Marvin Bagley has some obvious similarities. That Duke squad was maybe a half-rung better than the current one -- it finished four games behind the Virginia team that was upset by UMBC, but in an eight-bid league -- yet had what I think will be same fate as Coach K's last hurrah.

The 2018 Blue Devils blew through the NCAA's first two rounds, then just got by Syracuse before losing in overtime to Kansas in the Elite Eight. I think the current Blue Devils fall around the same time, maybe even a round earlier.


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Syracuse makes it rain from 3-point range in first half

Cole Swider, Joseph Girard III, and Buddy Boeheim each gets a piece of action in the first half with 3-pointers.

What's the formula for Syracuse upsetting the Blue Devils on Saturday night at the Carrier Dome? Do you give the Orange any chance to make a run at the ACC tournament in Brooklyn?

Medcalf: The formula involves smart, poised Buddy Boeheim versus volume shooter Buddy Boeheim. Syracuse is 3-4 in ACC games when he scores 20 or more. Syracuse is 4-6 in ACC play when he attempts nine or more 3s. He finished 1-for-10 in last month's loss to Duke, then went 4-for-15 from 3 in Syracuse's next game: a loss to Pitt. Yes, he's the most important offensive player on that squad by a mile.

But when he goes into 2000s Carmelo Anthony mode, it puts the outcome in the hands of a player who has shot just 34% from 3 in league play. Meanwhile, Joe Girard has been solid in recent weeks, and Boeheim should help him get more involved in this matchup.

That said, I don't think this volatile squad will make a deep run in the ACC tournament. They play a lot of high-risk offense, and this is one of the worst defensive units Boeheim has coached.

Medcalf score prediction: Duke 84, Syracuse 69

Borzello: Jim Boeheim has faced Mike Krzyzewski and Duke a couple times throughout his long and storied coaching career, so he'll know exactly how to beat the Blue Devils. But he knew the formula to beat Duke last month, too, and the Orange still shot 5-for-29 from 3, allowed 14 3s and lost by 20. So it's going to be about whether guys like Buddy Boeheim and Cole Swider and Girard are making shots. They also have to keep Banchero and Williams off the offensive glass; Duke is the best offensive rebounding team in the ACC and the 2-3 zone is notoriously susceptible to second-chance opportunities.

I don't foresee a classic March surge from Syracuse. The Orange end the season with home games against Duke and Miami, sandwiched around a trip to North Carolina, so they're unlikely to enter the ACC tournament with a ton of momentum. Throw in the fact that they're currently the 8-seed in the conference tournament and would be slated to face Duke in the quarterfinals, and I just don't think it's in the cards.

Borzello score prediction: Duke 77, Syracuse 71

Gasaway: The recipe is 3s. Syracuse had a three-game out-of-body experience spanning January and February when the Band of Boeheims had arguably the best offense in the country. The Orange's 94-72 trouncing of Wake Forest at the Carrier Dome is still the most efficient game of offense recorded by any team in ACC play this season. That version of Syracuse is capable of beating Duke, Gonzaga or quite possibly the Phoenix Suns.

In that game and in subsequent wins over NC State and Louisville, the Orange averaged 11 3s per contest while shooting 54% from beyond the arc. That's the recipe. In the pregame talk, Coach Boeheim should tell his team to do that again.

Gasaway score prediction: Duke 81, Syracuse 70

Lunardi: In short, lots of buckets from the younger Boeheims and a bit of magic from the old man on the sidelines. This is exactly the kind of game Jim Boeheim has won time and time again to put the Orange in an NCAA bubble conversation, and I fully expect it to happen again.

But I'm also sure Coach K will get a nice gift (just hope he likes the color!).

Lunardi score prediction: Syracuse 75, Duke 70