How great is Rivalry Week? Not only is it, you know, full of rivalries, but also with important, interesting, and thoroughly entertaining games. Just on ESPN alone, we've had Missouri-Kansas, Pittsburgh-West Virginia, Indiana-Purdue, and Kentucky-Tennessee. And tonight's slate is the best of them all, starting with ...
No. 11 Georgetown vs. No. 13 Syracuse, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN: Ah, yes. Duke-UNC receives a lot of attention for its rare brand of sporting hate, and Indiana-Purdue is often mentioned as the best or second-best hoops state rivalry in the country, but for sheer acrimony, you'd be hard pressed to find two fan bases that seem to loathe each other quite as much as Georgetown and Syracuse. And what better place to experience such acrimony than the Internet? Georgetown bloggers Casual Hoya and Syracuse blogger Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician have been going through their yearly routine of insult, ridicule, Groupon digs (ugh, Groupon) and cleverly placed buffet photos to get themselves hyped for Wednesday night's affair. Well done, boys.
Will the game itself live up to the hate? I think so. At the beginning of the conference season, you'd have liked Syracuse in the Carrier Dome here. But in the last month or so these two teams' trajectories have taken drastically different paths. The Hoyas, who struggled at the start of Big East play, are winners of six straight games, including a win vs. Louisville and a road win at Villanova. Austin Freeman, the preseason Big East player of the year, is playing up to those expectations. Jason Clark and Chris Wright are both making major contributions. Georgetown's Princeton offense has been fine-tuned; it's almost impossible to keep those three guards from popping out on high screens and getting open looks from three. And all three can be lethally accurate shooters.
Thanks to all that, Georgetown has rediscovered the offense that made it so impressive during its difficult nonconference run. (The Hoyas had one of, if not the, most difficult nonconference schedules of any high-major team in the country.) Syracuse, meanwhile, is still hoping to rediscover its defense. The Orangemen were shredded in four straight games against Pittsburgh, Villanova, Seton Hall (at home, no less), which was uncharacteristic after a defense-led 18-0 start. But Syracuse got some of their mojo back with a big win at Connecticut last week. Was that a legitimate turnaround? Or a one-game outlier?
We're going to find out tonight. That's your matchup of the evening, folks: Syracuse's 2-3 zone vs. Georgetown's brilliant guards. Forget the Princeton offense, forget the buffet photos, and forget Groupon. Even if you're not invested in this rivalry, you are going to get to see some pretty tremendous strategic basketball. Don't miss out.
No. 21 North Carolina at No. 5 Duke, 9 p.m. ET, ESPN:
For much of the season, this storied rivalry appeared to be set for a repeat of 2009-10. In other words, the word "rivalry" barely qualified at all.
Duke was the clear national title favorite. UNC was the talented but incoherent team with a disappointing, overhyped freshman. Duke was going to win the ACC going away. UNC was just another mediocre conference team. Duke was a No. 1 seed. UNC was trending toward the NIT.
Then, as they so often do in college hoops, things changed. Duke lost freshman Kyrie Irving -- arguably its best player, and one that turned Duke from "very good" to "unstoppable" -- to a freak toe injury that seems likely to cost the freshman his entire 2011 season. Duke lost to Florida State, and then to St. John's. Meanwhile, North Carolina figured itself out. Thanks to Harrison Barnes' suddenly brilliant play, as well as the addition of excellent freshman point guard Kendall Marshall to the starting lineup, UNC found its offense and rolled to five straight ACC wins, including thoroughly convincing blowouts of Boston College and Florida State.
In other words, the excitement is back. Both teams are 7-1 in the ACC. Both teams are playing some of their best basketball of late. Both teams have loads of talent. And while Duke is the more experienced team, and no doubt the better one overall, North Carolina's recent improvement (and year-long defensive excellence) has changed the entire outlook of this game.
Because Saddle Up should be more than just a history lesson (though I'd imagine a fair number of you are just getting into college hoops after the end of football), the match up to watch tonight is Kendall Marshall vs. Nolan Smith. Smith is playing at a player-of-the-year type level in recent weeks. Marshall has been a huge addition to the Tar Heels. But Marshall isn't the best defender in the world, and after the departure of Larry Drew II from the time last week, Roy Williams doesn't have any depth at the point guard spot to relieve Marshall for any extended period of time. If Smith can lock down the Tar Heels' facilitator, UNC's offense could go stagnant again. In Cameron Indoor, that's a recipe for a Duke win.
In any case, there's reason to be excited. Unlike last year -- or even earlier this year -- a Duke blowout isn't the only forseeable outcome. Will this game be a classic? Maybe. Maybe not. I'm just stoked that the possibility exists. If you're a college hoops fan, I bet you are, too.