The Spectacle at Syracuse
Posted February 5
If there's a better game on the college hoops horizon than we saw Saturday night at the Carrier Dome, then here's my credit card because I want a front-row ticket. For the first time ever Duke visited Syracuse in an ACC game and the hype didn't even come close to the show. It was, as former Duke All-American and current ESPN analyst Jay Williams told me, "a spectacle". The two winningest coaches in college basketball brought two of the best ten teams in the nation to the court and laid out two and a half hours of solid, high-level, shot-making basketball. In the end, Syracuse was the better team and continued their unbeaten season with a narrow, overtime victory. But, the real winner just might have been the Atlantic Coast Conference because for the first time in more than a decade, the conference has a headline act other than Duke vs North Carolina.
One of the most remarkable things about SEC football in the fall is the almost relentless schedule of appointment games. Seemingly every week there's at least one match up that grabs you, many times regardless of the records of the participants. Alabama vs LSU, Florida vs Georgia and Alabama vs Auburn are classic rivalries no matter the state of the teams. But, throw in the likes of Texas A&M and South Carolina and now we're stretching out the inventory of high-profile, "big event" games.
That was what we saw Saturday night in central New York state. Duke and Syracuse was a happening. Yes, it was the beginning of a conference rivalry that will be among the very best in the nation over the years and decades to come. But, there are a lot of conference rivalries that warrant your attention. Michigan-Michigan State is a great Big Ten rivalry. Kentucky's annual series with Florida is attention-grabbing. Kansas and Texas have also played some super games over the years and have grown into the best the Big XII has to offer annually. The difference between those couplings and that of the Orange and Blue Devils is that the latter has more of a national appeal.
For instance, Saturday night's game was the third highest-rated college basketball game ever on ESPN as almost 5 million people were tuned in. The game also set a WatchESPN record with more than 125,000 unique visitors generating over 5.6 million minutes of on-line viewing. Of the other top five ESPN college basketball games in network history, three of them are Duke-Carolina games with the 5th being the 1 vs 2 match up of Memphis and Tennessee in 2008. In general, college basketball falls way short of football in terms of television ratings and overall viewership. But, events like we saw Saturday night move the needle, drive interest in the sport and are -- to use an old NBC phrase -- "must see TV".
Starting next season, the Atlantic Coast Conference will have five of the top dozen winningest programs in the history of college hoops. No other conference has two. North Carolina, Duke, Syracuse, Notre Dame and Louisville give the ACC five national college hoops brands. No other league has more than one. And, if John Swofford plays it as he should, the Atlantic Coast Conference will deliver the best television package in the history of the sport. The annual Duke-Carolina series -- upon which ESPN2 was launched -- is still a national fascination today even as the sport has spread interest from coast to coast. Those two meetings are essentially the highest-rated college basketball games every year for ESPN, but think of the possibilities when you add in those three new league members.
Syracuse sold more than 35,000 tickets for Duke's first visit to the Carrier Dome as a conference foe -- the most ever for an on-campus facility. And, the game exceeded the hype. Iowa State's triple overtime win at Oklahoma State was a great watch, but with a two-thirds full Gallagher-Iba Arena there was something a bit lacking in terms of atmosphere. The Blue Devils and Orange rocked the dome to the foundation, gave us a thrilling 45 minutes of high level ball and still left us wanting more. When Louisville arrives in the fall of 2014 the possibilities are endless.
What would ESPN do with a true round robin from those five teams? Add to that, Virginia, Pittsburgh and North Carolina State, providing those programs are trending upward, or ranked, and suddenly the ACC's slate of basketball games has a big event feel every single week of the year. While the money is in football, ESPN and their rival networks need programming from January through March and college hoops can easily fill that void.
College basketball allows for unbalanced scheduling. The sport, and the teams, don't really suffer if one team's schedule is a bit more challenging than another's. That happens naturally anyway in the non-conference portion of the season. Sure, we might see that difficulty impact the league standings and, in turn, alter seeding for the conference tournaments, but those are small prices to pay to grab the attention of fans from the end of the NFL's regular season until baseball's opening day in April (or late March, as is the case today).
So Mr. Swofford, in the future, please give us more Duke-Syracuse and UNC-Louisville match ups. Why not even create a Super Bowl Saturday double header of iconic college basketball with those four schools -- all currently led by Hall of Fame coaches -- as we eagerly await kickoff. The sport has a lot of great games, but sadly, few great events. This year's Champions Classic was a spectacle of four great programs as Duke, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State thrilled us for more than five hours in Chicago. Imagine a scenario where one conference can do for basketball what the SEC has done for college football.
Duke's visit to Syracuse, along with the future arrival of Louisville, has given the Atlantic Coast Conference the opportunity to do just that. So long as John Swofford makes it happen.