The Duke Blue Devils were supposed to be good in 2012-13, but not nearly as good as they've been thus far. At 12-0, with wins over Kentucky, Louisville, Ohio State and Minnesota, they've earned their spot as the nation's undisputed No. 1 team.
Their conference has needed it.
The ACC was supposed to be bad in 2012-13, but not nearly as bad as they've been thus far. Duke's in-state rivals, UNC and NC State, have both faltered after preseason Final Four hopes. As it currently stands, Duke is the only team in the conference ranked among the nation's top 22 teams.
But still, this is the ACC, right? The talent in this league is undeniable, even if some pieces are taking longer than expected to mesh. Duke will not cakewalk to an undefeated conference season, no matter what the Cameron faithful might proclaim.
Here are three specific players who will be a thorn in their side this season:
C Alex Len, Maryland
Not so much because Mason Plumlee or Ryan Kelly have some sort of defensive deficiency. They don't. Alex Len is capable of giving Duke problems because, well, Alex Len is capable of giving anyone problems.
It's hard to articulate how much the Terps' 7'1'' center improved this offseason; something like "leaps and bounds" would be a criminal understatement. Which is scary since, to be perfectly honest, he wasn't all that bad as a freshman.
But now Len is averaging an effortless 13.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 25.1 minutes. And the Terps haven't played any real, 40-minute games besides Kentucky and Northwestern, so all those numbers are sure to inflate as his minutes increase during conference play.
Kentucky's frontline of Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress and Will Cauley-Stein were no match in the season opener, where Len scored 23 (on 10-of-18 shooting) and ripped down 12 boards. All three of the Wildcats' big men are projected to go in the first round of the NBA draft. Alex Len is projected to go top-five.
As of Dec. 26, the Blue Devils ranked 256th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage, grabbing only 65 percent of opponents' missed shots. If they don't improve on that, Len—who averages one offensive board every eight minutes—will make them pay dearly.
G Michael Snaer, Florida State
Why speculate about players who could give Duke problems when I could point toward a player who already has.
After starting the year ranked, then promptly dropping their season opener to South Alabama, it's hard to adjudge the Seminoles as anything but a disappointment thus far. But with their typical defensive prowess to go along with the senior leadership of Snaer, it's also hard to count them out of the ACC race.
Florida State beat Duke twice in three games last year. In those three games, Snaer was incredibly consistent, putting up 14, 16 and 18 points, respectively. He also filled up the rest of the score sheet, dishing out six assists and blocking two shots in the ACC tournament upset.
The Seminoles will count on their sachem for more production than ever in 2013. If past performance is any indication, Snaer will will be up to the task—and then some.
F James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina
Like the Tar Heels as a unit, McAdoo has been a minor disappointment this season. But by the time the Duke games roll around—Feb. 13 and March 9—the 6'9'' sophomore may very well have found his groove.
His offensive game isn't as polished as Tyler Zeller's, but McAdoo provides a different, more sculpted physical presence. When he wants to, he's a specimen capable of taking over for long stretches.
Last season, he was one of Carolina's only bench players capable of contributing against Duke. He scored six points in both games, making 6-of-11 shots combined.
This year, he'll obviously be counted on to do much more. And while his game hasn't transformed the way Heels' fans hoped, it's improved enough to be capable of doing just that.