Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Syracuse's Jim Boeheim are the two winningest coaches in the history of college basketball. They have combined for 1,914 wins, five national championships and 15 Final Fours. They have joined forces to help Team USA win back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 2008 and '12. They consider each other best friends.
On Saturday, they will be on opposite benches for just the third time, when the No. 2-ranked Orange host the 17th-ranked Blue Devils in the first meeting between the two powerhouse programs in 16 years.
That matchup is empirically cool, but the weight of the game goes beyond just the two legends on the sidelines. It is about what Duke has long carried and which Syracuse, the conference intruder, is poised to steal: the banner of the ACC itself.
The stakes were not unexpected -- the Blue Devils were picked first in the preseason ACC media poll and the Orange second -- but what might be is that it is Krzyzewski's team, not Boehiem's, that is in need of a statement victory. Syracuse is undefeated (20-0, 7-0) and sits atop the league standings. Duke (17-4, 6-2), meanwhile, is tied for third and has lost its first two games this year against elite opponents, falling to Kansas and Arizona (albeit both in November) on neutral courts while also losing to unranked ACC foes Notre Dame and Clemson in conference road games this month.
Syracuse hasn't been tested as severely -- the Orange's highest-ranked opponent was then-No. 8 Villanova -- but it has already beaten back a Tobacco Road blueblood, hammering North Carolina 57-45 at the Carrier Dome on Jan. 11. A win for Duke won't impact the league standings but it would give them a chance to put a conference newcomer in its place, much as the Blue Devils did on Monday night when they entered the maw of Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center and detonated from three-point range en route to an 80-65 win over the 18th-ranked Panthers.
Back on Jan. 4, after Notre Dame upended Duke at home in the ACC opener for both teams, Irish coach Mike Brey proclaimed the Blue Devils were “the team you have to beat in the ACC if you want to look like you belong.”
Syracuse, in a significant if not shocking irony, is the team Duke has to beat in order to reassert its claim that it belongs in the ACC championship race this season. The programs will meet again in Durham. N.C., on Feb. 22 but the regular season title may be out of Duke's grasp by then if it loses in upstate New York tomorrow.
Despite the hype for this game, one result Saturday won’t echo into eternity. Both programs figure to be good at least as long as the 69-year-old Boeheim and the 66-year-old Krzyzewski are around, and both are sure to remain great friends. Krzyzewski recently hailed Boeheim as “the guy I had the most respect for in the game” and the coach “who I thought as brilliant and different than me.”
Boeheim, meanwhile, said, “It’s just been a great relationship. Coaching is such a competitive field. You’re not going to have a lot of friends in coaching because you’re trying to beat each other’s brains in for the most part. It’s good to have a really good friend in coaching. It’s been great.” It just won't be great for one of them on Saturday night.