Just three days after falling to No. 10 UNC in the Carrier Dome, Syracuse (18-11, 7-9) lost their second in a row in a vicious back-to-back. The No. 5 Duke Blue Devils (24-5, 12-4) took care of the Orange 60-44 in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday for their fifth straight win.
The Orange got the best of the Blue Devils in their last two matchups, with their most recent victory credited to John Gillon's heroics at the buzzer last year in the Carrier Dome. In the bid for their third straight, however, the Orange struggled to find an offensive flow and fell victim to the lethal duo of Duke's big men.
Syracuse entered the contest with a loose grip on the NCAA Tournament bubble, having lost to North Carolina on Wednesday, its season continues to hang in the balance. Duke, on the other hand, was riding a four-game win streak and was looking to strengthen their case for a one-seed in the NCAA Tournament.
In a matchup against two of the nation's premiere forwards in one of the nation's most challenging venues, the undersized and undermanned Orange put yet another damper on their hopes of making the Big Dance.
The Blue Devils' dynamic duo of Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. reunited for the first time in four games, as Bagley was recovering from a strained knee suffered earlier this month. With 19 points and 7 rebounds in 31 minutes, Bagley wasted no time in returning to form. Complemented by Carter Jr's 16 points and 10 rebounds, the play of Duke's bigs paved the way for their convincing victory.
Defensively, Syracuse Head Coach Jim Boeheim understood Duke's strength and experimented with centers Paschal Chukwu and Bourama Sidibe in the first half. After Sidibe proved largely ineffective against the opposing front-court, Chukwu was forced into paint duty for most of the remainder.
The 7-foot 2-inch junior held his own for the Orange, grabbing a game-high 12 rebounds in 24 minutes of play, which was cut short by his fifth personal foul with seven minutes left in regulation. The loss of Chukwu was a big blow to Syracuse's momentum, as Duke emphasized their victory down the stretch with a barrage of dunks, draining all energy from the Orange as time ticked away.
After Syracuse struggled against the full and half-court pressure applied by the NC State Wolfpack in a loss last week, Duke followed the same formula and severely disrupted Syracuse's traditional offensive strategy. The Orange thrives off using the shot clock and taking their time to find an open lane or shooter, but Duke's pressure and 2-3 zone forced guards Frank Howard and Tyus Battle to move the ball more than they are used to, creating confusion in the Syracuse offense.
Duke came into the game forcing 12.1 turnovers per game and allowing 70.8 points per game, but the Orange ended on the wrong side of both numbers, totaling a staggering 17 turnovers and a season-low 44 points.
While no one truly stood out on offense for Syracuse, Battle and Howard led the team in scoring with 12 and 11 points respectively. The third piece of Syracuse's offensive production, Oshae Brissett, struggled to find his touch all night, shooting 2-13 for 6 points in 37 minutes.
Offense does not come easy for Syracuse, as they must rely on Battle, Howard, and Brissett to not only play most of the game, but to carry most of the offensive workload. And when one or more of them can't seem to find the bottom of the net, the team suffers on both ends of the floor. Through persistent pressure and a crafty zone defense, Duke took away the chances from the players who needed them.
Looking ahead, Duke will go for its sixth straight win when they travel to Virginia Tech on Monday. Syracuse will try and reach that 20-win mark and spark tournament consideration with matchups at Boston College Wednesday and then close out the season at home against Clemson.