By Matt Norlander
The notion that college basketball is only meaningful in March is, for the most part, a fallacy. From November through February, millions of people either attend games or watch them on television. Many do both, and with great frequency. These people -- real-life devotees of a sport whose prime supposedly rotted away about two decades ago -- are not doing it out of mandate, guilt or compulsion. Dedicated, increasingly intelligent and passionate fan bases are as vested today as they've ever been, and the TV deals aren't exactly shrinking, either. Is this the country's first or second or third most popular sport? No. But who said it needed to be?
College basketball has always been more than OK with being the punk-rock-loving little brother. It's the sport that's a little too cocky for its own good, but really endearing to the niche set of fans that still find endless joy despite all the warts affixed to the game. Just because all too many drive-by national sports pundits are too caught up in their own interests amid the ever-growing truncation of heat-and-serve sports commentary to ever give college hoops more than a curious glimpse prior to the conference tournaments doesn't meant the sport doesn't have impact, relevance and entertainment value for the majority of its regular season.
But with all that said, I can acknowledge that college hoops far too often fails to deliver huge games of reverberating impact the way the NFL, college football and the NBA do during their regular seasons. College basketball diehards will refute that NBA part with red-faced cynicism, but week-to-week, the pros get much more out of the #narrativemachine than college hoops. It's the one thing I wish college hoops had more of: true must-watch games in December, January and February. This is a product of the sport, in general. But when the biggest and best games show, boy do they show.
That's why what came about in central New York on Saturday evening was so stirring. It was the Game of the Year according to most who saw it -- and college hoops has already had a few pretty terrific tussles through its first three months.
But something terrific happened in the Carrier Dome when No. 2 Syracuse won 91-89 in overtime against Duke. The Orange got to 21-0, improving upon the best start to a season in program history. C.J. Fair, one of those seniors who's on track to be a first team All-American, scored a career-high 28 points.
"He broke out of that good, solid player into a great player," Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said at the podium afterward.
Despite some foul trouble on Duke's end -- and of course, controversial officiating; welcome to every sport ever -- it was a supremely well-played game. In 45 minutes, there were 16 turnovers total, less than 12 percent of each team's possessions.
"We've had a lot of games it here that have been great, but there's never been a game as good as this one," Boeheim said on television afterward. He expounded on that thought at his presser, quipping, "I can't say enough about the quality of this game. It was the highest quality possible. And if you paid $3,400 on the market for a courtside seat, it was money well spent."
There were opposing styles, which of course can always make for the best of clashes. Interior-challenged Duke maintained its chase by lobbing home 15 three-pointers; Syracuse only attempted four treys all game. Future top-five pick Jabari Parker fouled out well before regulation ended, robbing us of the best possible players giving it a go into the closing minutes.
But then again, if Parker's on the floor, do we ever get to overtime? Does Rasheed Sulaimon ever get the chance to sink a game-tying three as time expires?
Combining for nearly 2,000 victories spanning across 79 seasons and counting, Boeheim and Mike Krzyzewski are the two winningest coaches in the history of the game. Really good friends, to boot. Colleagues who've worked together with USA Basketball. Now they're unwanted rivals, but rivals nonetheless. You get the feeling both want to chase each other for a good half-decade, at least, before someone gives way and calls it a career. Part of the fun is we really have no idea which of the two will step away first.
"He's too good, he's too good," Boeheim said of Krzyzewski. "I don't like coaching against him."
This is a new rivalry, one the sport probably didn't realize it needed, but damn, is hoops thankful it's arrived. Even the players are already aware of the game's gravity. Two of the 10 best programs in the sport's history happened to be paying rent under the ACC roof now, and a lot of people understood pretty quickly just how swiftly we can all move on from romanticizing the leagues and losses from conferences that are no more.
Because ultimately, college sports can always give us something new, and it can give us rivalries, no matter the infrastructure. Here's what I think can make Duke-Syracuse such a terrific tête-à-tête going forward, one facet to it that will add to their series: the dichotomy in venues. A record-setting 35,446 souls (and probably, even a few more than that) were under the big bag at the Dome on Saturday. It was the biggest "on-campus" crowd to ever watch a regular-season college basketball game.
In three weeks, not even 30 percent of that number will be able to squeeze into Cameron Indoor to watch the rematch.
The contrast of each team's home court is really terrific. That game on Saturday felt like a regional final, in part because of the teams playing; in part because of the ways the teams played; in part because the Carrier Dome is no stranger to hosting NCAA tournament games. The unintended benefit of a newfangled ACC created the game of the season to date, and in doing so, Syracuse and Duke gave us reason to be excited for the future of that league. It took Syracuse only eight games in the ACC to give the conference one of its best games in 61 years of existence.
Less than 24 hours before the biggest game on the sports calendar, college basketball delivered at the best possible moment, serving up one of the best games we'll see all year and establishing a new thread for the sport's future in the process.
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Matt Norlander is a contributor to Sports on Earth and a writer at CBSSports.com. He lives in Connecticut and is equal parts obsessed with sports and music. Follow him on Twitter: @MattNorlander.