Duke was already hitting its stride entering an important ACC game Monday night against Syracuse, but the Blue Devils kicked into another gear against the Orange with an 85-71 victory as they won their fourth straight and crept closer to the NCAA Tournament bubble. The home victory against the Orange (13-7, 7-6 ACC) counts as a Quad 2 win for the Blue Devils (11-8, 9-6) and improves Duke to 6-6 in Quad 1 and 2 games ahead of scheduled contests with Louisville, Georgia Tech and North Carolina to close the regular season.
As CBS Sports Bracketology Expert Jerry Palm noted Monday, Duke's resume is "still very thin," but the blowout win over a Syracuse team on the bubble showed once again that the Blue Devils may be peaking at the right time. At the heart of the recent improvement is a more cohesive offense and a defense that has stiffened after allowing over 90 points in losses to Notre Dame and North Carolina earlier this month.
The Blue Devils whipped the basketball around the arc against Syracuse's zone in the first half for open looks and hit 10-of-18 tries from 3-point range while opening up a 52-34 lead at the break. By night's end, Duke had racked up 27 assists on 34 made field goals. The Blue Devils' offensive efficiency and floor spacing appeared to show again that the team has discovered a real rhythm without five-star freshman Jalen Johnson, who opted out of the rest of the season on Feb. 15.
Johnson's decision prompted Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim to surmise that Duke may actually better without Johnson. Though his publicly-stated opinion on the matter drew some criticism, Boeheim saw firsthand on Monday that his assessment was likely correct.
The Orange, meanwhile, needed the victory to bolster their own NCAA Tournament chances as they entered the game on the wrong side of the bubble, according to Palm. Instead, they became the latest victims of Duke's late-season renaissance and will likely need a strong finish -- beginning with a game at Georgia Tech on Saturday -- to compete for an at-large bid.