College Basketball

‘Rivalry’ unglued: Thrill is gone from Duke-Syracuse matchup

Even Quinn Cook had to laugh when he was asked about the overwhelming hype that surrounded last year’s two meetings between Duke and Syracuse.

“Last year, they were really, really good, and I think everything was blown up,” Cook said. “We lost on a controversial call up there and they lost on a controversial call down here.”

He paused and chuckled to himself.

“It was just a lot, last year,” he said.

A year later, and it’s readily apparent the Duke-Syracuse “rivalry” was, as Cook put it, “a big media thing.” Syracuse’s visit to Duke last year was perhaps the biggest game of the season to that point. It justified the hype then, but as Syracuse returns, it’s just another Saturday night for Duke in the slog between North Carolina games, indistinguishable from Clemson and Virginia Tech and Wake Forest.

The preposterous idea that Syracuse could or would somehow join or even supplant North Carolina as Duke’s biggest rival, pushed heavily by ESPN in promoting last year’s games, has faded completely into irrelevance. There’s always the Mike Krzyzewski-Jim Boeheim angle, and these games against Duke may still be a big deal to Syracuse, which is understandably grasping for solid ground as it adjusts to the loss of its traditional Big East rivals, but it’s hard to detect any greater degree of interest on the other side this time around.

The reality is the two games last year didn’t represent the birth of some great new rivalry; they just happened to be two games between two famous coaches and two elite teams that happened to be in the same conference for the first time, and perhaps only coincidentally produced two memorable, compelling, television-ratings bonanzas.

Circumstances have changed this year. Syracuse was down even before its postseason possibilities were wiped away, and without any grand ACC or national implications, the Orange is just another opponent for Duke, a team headed in a different direction.

The ACC gerrymandered the basketball scheduling paradigm to make sure Duke and Syracuse played twice again this season, to the benefit of its television partners. By the time the second game rolled around, not even ESPN could pretend anyone outside Syracuse was all that interested.

There’s an important lesson here that applies to another of the ACC’s big issues, the inadvertently unbalanced football divisions: It’s all too easy to get caught up in the way things are now when making changes for the future. Just as the energy expended to ensure another Duke-Syracuse home-and-home was essentially a waste of time, the ACC should take caution in tinkering with the makeup of the football divisions, should there ever be enough consensus to do it.

As inequitable as it is at the moment to have Florida State, Clemson and Louisville in the same division, circumstances do change unexpectedly. At the time of the expansion that added Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College, no one foresaw the Hurricanes becoming totally inconsequential in football. Both the Hokies and Eagles have played in the ACC title game. The Hurricanes have not. (Although Miami did win a basketball title, so there’s that.)

So be careful.

Rushing to make sure Duke and Syracuse played twice this season did not, in the end, have the desired impact. In fact, it looks pretty silly now. Who wouldn’t rather see Duke play Virginia twice? Or N.C. State? And so on.

As far as basketball goes, Duke and Syracuse gave us two memorable games last season, one decent game this season and that’s it – although that doesn’t make this game any less important for Duke, which still has an outside chance to catch Virginia for the ACC regular-season title.

“I think we still take the game as serious as we did last year,” Cook said, as well the Blue Devils should, but the thrill is gone from this so-called rivalry, as quickly as it arrived.

DeCock: ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock, 919-829-8947

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