Duke Basketball: 10 Ways the Blue Devils Can Win the ACC
Not too long ago, I all but wrote off Duke’s chances at having a magical season. Well, it’s a good thing I have a healthy appetite, because it looks more and more like I’m about to eat my words.
This certainly may not be Mike Krzyzewski’s most talented Duke team he has ever assembled and these Blue Devils may not be the best team in the country. However, Austin Rivers and his teammates have already proven that they have as good a chance as any squad out there to cut the nets down in New Orleans on April 2.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Duke is chasing another pretty prestigious championship right now: the ACC Championship. The Blue Devils have put themselves in great position to capture yet another ACC regular-season and tournament title and there is a plethora of ways they can turn their conference championship dreams into a reality.
For starters, here are 10 of them.
Climb on Austin Rivers’ Back
Maybe Duke freshman phenom Austin Rivers hasn’t been as consistent as some Cameron Crazies would like him to be. Even so, Rivers has shown enough in his first season in Durham to indicate that the Blue Devils can lean on him en route to ACC glory.
Rivers is leading the Blue Devils in scoring at a solid 15.0 points per game, the first Duke freshman since the legendary Johnny Dawkins to do so. The North Carolina game singlehandedly told me that Rivers can shoulder the load offensively if he has to.
Not only did Rivers sink the epic game-winning shot over Tyler Zeller, but he kept the Devils alive with a bunch of timely shots en route to scoring 29 points against the Tar Heels.
Rivers has the confidence, cockiness and skill set capable of leading the Devils to another ACC crown.
Beat North Carolina and Florida State
Here is quite the paradox, mainly because it seems like this scenario is both the easiest and hardest way that Duke can win the ACC. It’s a three-team race for ACC supremacy between the Blue Devils, Tar Heels and Seminoles.
Obviously, if Duke can pick up critical head-to-head wins against North Carolina and Florida State, it would essentially lock up the regular-season conference title. The problem is that beating those two tough teams is much easier said than done.
Michael Snaer and the Seminoles already beat Duke once this year, as Snaer’s buzzer-beating shot snapped Duke’s 45-game winning streak at Cameron. Austin Rivers and the Blue Devils will be out for revenge when they visit Tallahassee Thursday night for the rematch.
Speaking of revenge, Tyler Zeller and his Tar Heels will be out for some when they make the eight-mile trek to Durham on March 3. Whoever wins these two rematches will go a long way in determining the ACC regular-season champion.
Capture the Top Seed in the ACC Tournament
If the Duke Blue Devils can somehow beat Florida State and North Carolina, it will likely lock up the top seed in the upcoming ACC tournament in Atlanta. Securing that top spot could really help Mike Krzyzewski’s team emerge as ACC tournament champions.
If Duke got the top spot, you’d assume that Carolina and Florida State would lock up the second and third seeds in no particular order. That’s potential good news for Duke because they would potentially only have to face either the Heels or ‘Noles and not both as a top seed.
And if they should run into either of those foes, it wouldn’t be until the ACC title game. In a one-game scenario with a conference tournament title on the line, you take your chances if you’re either team.
Utilize the Deep Bench
For the first time in a while, Mike Krzyzewski actually has pretty legitimate depth on his Duke Blue Devils bench. Even his national championship team of 2010 didn’t have a particularly deep bench.
You had the Plumlee brothers and an occasional cameo appearance from then-freshmen Andre Dawkins and Ryan Kelly. Now, the 2011-12 version of the Devils have arguably the most talented bench in the entire ACC—even better than the suddenly-thin North Carolina Tar Heels.
Start with a young and dynamic point guard in Quinn Cook. Then, you add the rebounding prowess and veteran leadership of senior Miles Plumlee.
Coach K also has sharpshooter Andre Dawkins, who possesses the best outside stroke on the entire team. Krzyzewski can also throw the young duo of Josh Hairston and Michael Gbinije out there if need be.
Having this many quality players coming off the pine could pay huge dividends down the stretch for Duke.
Keep Giving Tyler Thornton Significant Minutes
Maybe Tyler Thornton doesn’t exactly stuff the offensive stat sheet on a nightly basis for the Duke Blue Devils. However, Thornton is Duke’s best perimeter guard defensively and that alone keeps him on the court for much of the game, as it should.
As good as guards Austin Rivers, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins are offensively, they leave a little something to be desired on the defensive end. It’s definitely not for a lack of effort.
But let’s face it; not everybody is a Shane Battier or a Steve Wojciechowski on defense. On the other hand, Thornton is cut from the same cloth on that end of the floor.
It also doesn’t hurt that he can knock down a big shot occasionally, like the one he hit to spark Duke’s furious comeback over Carolina in Chapel Hill a few weeks ago.
Depend on the Frontcourt More
I might be in the minority here, but I actually think Duke’s front line is a bit underrated. We all know what Mason Plumlee is capable of by now.
The middle Plumlee brother is a very athletic big man who plays above the rim and handles the ball well for a player of his size. Even with poor free-throw shooting, Mason will be a first-round draft pick if he declares for the NBA a year early.
His older brother Miles definitely holds his own on the glass. The oldest Plumlee is pulling down a solid six rebounds a game coming off the bench.
In one game against Maryland this season, Miles had a staggering 22 rebounds. That’s the most a Dukie has amassed in one game since 1970, when Randy Denton had 25.
And let’s not forget about fellow forward Ryan Kelly. The junior has had a pretty solid season in his first go-around as a Duke starter, averaging 12 points a game.
Duke’s backcourt gets all the publicity, but those guards should have a bit more faith in the underrated frontcourt trio of Kelly and the Plumlees. A nice inside-outside game could propel this Duke team to postseason greatness.
Believe it or not, I actually think the Duke Blue Devils need to shoot the three-ball more than they already do. Duke is ranked 65th nationwide in number of three-pointers attempted (574) on the season.
When you have sharpshooters like Austin Rivers, Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly and Andre Dawkins at your disposal, that’s simply unacceptable. The three-pointer is the great equalizer in the sport and we have already seen once this year how the arc can help Duke out of a sticky situation.
Back when the Devils squared off against archrival North Carolina the first time, Duke was outmanned down low by the likes of Tyler Zeller and John Henson. However, the Devils drilled 14 treys (including Rivers’ buzzer-beater) to just one for the Tar Heels.
That formula allowed Duke to escape with a one-point win and it’s a formula that could launch the Dukies to the top of the conference when all is said and done.
Embrace Who You Are
Who exactly is this year’s version of the Duke Blue Devils? They’re decent (but not dominant) defensively, underrated on the interior and can score with the best of them.
It’s a bit weird to see a Duke team that’s stronger offensively than they are defensively. But that doesn’t mean an offensive-minded Duke team is incapable of capturing the ACC title.
It’s not very hard to envision a team with as much offensive talent as Duke possesses capturing both the regular and postseason ACC crowns. Following the formula of explosive offensive and good-enough defense has already gotten the Blue Devils pretty far in conference play.
There’s no reason to believe the formula can’t continue to work.
Believe in the Karma
Over the course of any season, a championship team usually has a few brushes with good karma.
Am I saying that the Duke Blue Devils are a championship team? Not necessarily.
However, I am saying that this Duke team has already run into some moments that make a championship team, so you can add two and two. No Duke fan can ever forget the Miracle Minute a decade ago in College Park.
Well, now you have the Miracle Two Minutes that took place in Chapel Hill a few weeks ago. Of course, that’s when the Blue Devils erased a 10-point deficit in the final two-plus minutes to stun North Carolina, 85-84.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, Duke then erased a 20-point deficit in 11 minutes to complete a wild comeback against North Carolina State. And in that game, Seth Curry led the Dukies in scoring despite playing on an ankle he sprained that night.
Like I said, this team has run into some pretty memorable championship moments this season that could serve as a great omen down the road.
Hang in There
When it seemed like all was lost against North Carolina, Mike Krzyzewski kept imploring his team to “hang in there.” That has kind of become a battle cry of sorts for the Duke Blue Devils this season.
Yes, they’ve suffered a couple of debilitating ACC losses to the Sunshine State teams (Florida State, Miami). Yes, they’ve faced tough deficits against the likes of North Carolina and NC State.
The point is that Duke has benefited from hanging in there, both in games and throughout the season. They were able to complete stirring comebacks against the Tar Heels and Wolfpack and have bounced back from two conference losses to sit atop the ACC at the moment.
Coach K’s squad needs to keep embracing that boxer’s mentality. They’re never out of it until someone actually proves they can knock the Dukies out.
If Duke keeps hanging in there, they just may find themselves ACC champions—and more.