Orange Watch: 20 years ago, Syracuse played Duke in the Sweet 16

duke
Syracuse defeated Duke in an epic battle in 2014.

Item: The Syracuse-Duke basketball rivalry, instantly the most attractive for SU fans since the ACC debut in 2013-14, actually predates the ACC affiliation. First, there was the 1966 East Region final game at Raleigh in which Dave Bing, Jim Boeheim, and company came up short 91-81, failing to advance to the school’s first Final Four berth. That was followed by a 1971 meeting at Madison Square Garden in the then-annual ECAC Holiday Festival, the Orangemen winning 94-92 (Mike Lee 23 points). Next there was the memorable 1989 Billy Owens-led (18 points, nine rebounds, seven assists) 78-76 win for the No. 1 ranked Orange over the sixth ranked Blue Devils in the ACC-Big East challenge at Greensboro, the first game that Boeheim matched wits with Mike Krzyzewski. The last pre-ACC game between the teams occurred 20 years ago this week, Friday, March 20, 1998, a Sweet 16 game in front of 40,589 at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg.

The move to the ACC has not only brought in a lot more money to the athletic department’s coffers than its Big East affiliation, but it has created annual Dome football matchups with the likes of Florida State and Clemson, and hoops meetings with Duke and North Carolina, increasing the interest level and large home crowds reminiscent of Miami football and Georgetown basketball games of the Big East era, with the initial Duke ACC game setting the on-campus attendance record of 35,466 in 2014.

Back in ’89 Boeheim had to go kicking and screaming to Greensboro to meet the Blue Devils, as he knew a tough test awaited his top ranked team that was playing the likes of C.W. Post, Towson State, and Lafayette, mandated by the matchups of the ACC-Big East challenge at a time he was more than happy to spend the entire pre-conference schedule with home games prepping his team for the rugged Big East.

» Related: Keeping the upsets coming, Syracuse defeats Michigan State

But in March 1998, Boeheim had no compunction facing Duke after the Orange survived against Iona (and old friend Tim Welsh), and bounced higher-seed New Mexico in first/second round games at Rupp Arena in Lexington to advance to face the Blue Devils.

Coach K was already a Hall of Fame-bound coach in 1998 (enshrined in 2001) having captured back-to-back national titles in 1991-92, and his team was ranked No. 2 as it faced the ‘Cuse in the first game of the regional semifinals before two other championship programs, Kentucky and UCLA, met in the nightcap. Duke hadn’t been that far in the tournament since 1994, while SU was coming off a disappointing appearance in the NIT the season before, ecstatic to still be playing during the tournament’s second week.

The Sweet 16 game, however, turned lopsided in a hurry. Tied at 49-49 midway through the second half due to the stellar play of Todd Burgan, Jason Hart, and Ryan Blackwell (a combined 46 points), Duke went on an 11-0 blitz over five minutes led by big men and future NBA players Elton Brand and Shane Battier (combined 34 points and 21 rebounds), and reserve freshman guard William Avery who had 11 points and six key assists to eventually win 80-67.

Ironically, Syracuse had trouble against Duke’s overly aggressive man-to-man defense in the ’98 NCAA defeat, something it will not face often when the two teams match 2-3 zone strategies in Friday’s night second regional semifinal game at Omaha’s CenturyLink Center (approximately 9:37 p.m. ET / CBS).

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Brad Bierman
About Brad Bierman 488 Articles
Now in his fifth decade of covering SU sports, Brad was sports director of WSYR radio for eight years into the early 1990s, then wrote the Orange Watch column for The Big Orange/The Juice print publication for 18 years. A Syracuse University graduate, Brad currently runs his own media consulting business in the Philadelphia suburbs. Follow him on Twitter @BradBierman.