Duke vs. Syracuse preview: Blue Devils on the rise, Orange struggling lately

Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

Duke is playing its third game in five days. Syracuse is coming off its first loss of the season. Lots of different ways this could go.

The Saturday matchup between the No. 5 Duke Blue Devils and No. 1 Syracuse Orange (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) was shaping up to be the best game of the 2013-14 regular season. But just this week, Syracuse suffered its first loss of the season and Duke fell to this season's main giant killer in traditional rival North Carolina after their game was rescheduled from Feb. 12.

Despite the loss, Duke is the team trending in a better direction coming into the game. Syracuse has been playing with fire all season, and finally got burned. Mike Rutherford thinks it is time to talk about how not great Syracuse has been:

Regardless of the extenuating circumstances, legitimate championship contenders don't lose to teams like Boston College at this point in the season...especially not at home. But now that the "all they do is find ways to win" defense is out the window, we can finally talk about the fact that Syracuse hasn't looked like a legitimate championship contender since the calendar flipped to February.

Tyler Ennis has developed a reputation as the most clutch player in college basketball, despite the fact that he is only a freshman. That is some really high praise. His play earned it. The numbers are not the same as they were when that tweet was put on the Internet, but that is impressive. Why has he needed to be so clutch, though?

Syracuse just hasn't played well. If a team plays in enough close games, it is going to get burned, plain and simple. The Orange worked themselves past a nice golden brown color, and are now engulfed in flames and rapidly turning into ash. Or maybe Syracuse burned its hand and is running it under cold water. Either way, too many close games tend to cause some damage.

Duke's play since its head-scratching loss on the road against Clemson on Jan. 11 has shown why the Blue Devils are one of the best teams in the country. Seven of the 11 games after that defeat have been wins of 15 points or more. The games that weren't were an overtime thriller against its current foe, Syracuse, the loss to the Tar Heels, a very close win against rival Maryland and a grinding victory over ACC-leading Virginia.

North Carolina has won eight straight. Maryland is a rival, though Mike Krzyzewski believes Maryland doesn't consider it too big of a rivalry. Syracuse is a very, very good team. It also hadn't started its stretch of bad play.

Duke is winning big. It is playing well. It is playing like a national championship contender. Syracuse is sliding, relative to how the top-ranked team in the country should be playing.

There is something that the Orange have on their side. Duke will be playing its third game in five days. Jabari Parker and his teammates could be ragged after playing in so many games. Of course, there is always the possibility that Syracuse is a bit hung over from its loss and comes out flat, in which case both teams will be exhausted: Duke physically and Syracuse emotionally.

On the flipside of the Orange coming out emotionally drained, they could come out with a passion yet to be seen. The loss could be the best thing to happen to Syracuse. Lots of storylines lead into this game. There are a lot of possibilities as to how it could turn out. Tune in to watch it.

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