A battle for the 'new' ACC

A familiar face (Duke) welcomes a new foe (Syracuse) to a fresh rivalry

Originally Published: February 1, 2014
By C.L. Brown | ESPN.com

Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis put a funny twist to a question posing Saturday's meeting with Duke as a battle between the old guard of Tobacco Road versus the Orange newcomers from the North.

[+] EnlargeC.J. Fair, James Michael McAdoo
Brett Carlsen/Getty ImagesSyracuse has already beaten North Carolina in the Carrier Dome. The Orange are looking to make Duke their latest Tobacco Road victim.

The freshman guard, who also spent time deflecting questions positioning the game as a matchup between himself and Duke's Jabari Parker, said that as far as he was concerned, the old-versus-new element didn't exist.

"I've been in the ACC my whole college career," Ennis said.

As odd as that notion might seem, it's time to get used to it. The old ACC died in earnest a decade ago -- around the time of the first expansion, which put an end to round-robin scheduling in league play.

Syracuse is currently unbeaten in league play and holds a half-game lead over Virginia, as well as 1½  game lead over Pittsburgh and Duke. Should the Orange claim the title this season, it could also signal an end of the stranglehold North Carolina and Duke have had on the conference.

The Tar Heels (29) and Blue Devils (19) have combined for 48 regular season titles, which includes shared titles, in the 60 seasons the league has existed. Maybe it is time to accept the ACC title might reside in new neighborhoods far removed from Tobacco Road.

Syracuse forward C.J. Fair fired the first salvo during the league's media day in Charlotte, N.C., when he said that the Orange planned on winning the league. He reiterated his stance Wednesday after beating Wake Forest.

"That's how our attitude was, that's how I wanted my attitude to be," Fair said. "Our first year, we can make history."

Surely this is what we all expected right? That Syracuse, despite playing in its inaugural season in the ACC, would be in big games that had regular-season-title implications. The same will probably be said when Louisville joins next season.

"In the Big East, they were 1-2-3 every year, they had a chance to win it every year, so it's no different when they come into the ACC," Duke forward Amile Jefferson said. "… We knew when they entered the ACC it's not like they were going to be at the bottom or in the middle, they were going to be competing, so we expect nothing less."

That's how our attitude was, that's how I wanted my attitude to be. Our first year, we can make history.

--Syracuse forward C.J. Fair

The only difference on Saturday is perhaps the order might have been flipped. Duke was the preseason pick to win the championship, but so far in league play the Blue Devils are chasing the first-place Orange.

Let's not get carried away with it, though, there's not a total transformation of the ACC going on here. In the current standings, four of the bottom five teams are all former Big East schools -- three from the first expansion (Miami, Boston College, Virginia Tech) and Notre Dame from the latest.

Miami won the ACC regular-season and tournament titles last season. But there have been only four times in 60 years that Duke or UNC have gone consecutive seasons without capturing at least a share of the title.

North Carolina dropped its first three games to start league play -- including a loss at Syracuse -- and has seemingly taken itself out of the race early. Although the Heels haven't statistically been eliminated, it would take a remarkable scenario for them to win it.

[+] EnlargeMike Krzyzewski
Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesA loss to Syracuse on Saturday would leave Duke with considerable ground to make up in the ACC race.

The Blue Devils are positioned in striking distance of first place despite beginning 1-2 in the league after back-to-back road losses. They have won five straight, including wins over Virginia and Pittsburgh, and look like the team the league's media predicted would win the regular season.

As they prepare to play before upwards of 35,000 people in the Carrier Dome, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said he welcomes the attention the matchup brings.

"Hopefully, the game will measure up to the buildup," Krzyzewski said in a release.

Somewhat lost in what the game will mean for both teams is the fact that Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim and Krzyzewski -- the winningest coaches in Division I history with more than 1,900 wins between them -- will meet for just the third time ever. That's why Krzyzewski doesn't see it as a potential hostile takeover; he believes it'll be good for the ACC brand and points to the presence of ESPN's "College GameDay" broadcasting from Syracuse as proof.

As fun as this one could be, the two teams have a second meeting scheduled for Feb. 22 in Cameron Indoor Stadium. It's why Duke guard Andre Dawkins didn't feel the need to give the game a greater meaning than it already has.

"We're not about making statements and doing a lot of talking, we just play," Dawkins said. "Right now our focus is on Syracuse, then we'll worry about who we have next. We'll let you guys [media, fans] do the talking."

C.L. Brown | email

College Basketball

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