On the surface, 2012-13 has been a typical Duke season: 18-2 record, No. 5 in the AP, tops in RPI and jockeying for position atop the ACC.
It's business as usual in Durham.
Of course, nothing is as simple as it seems, and the Blue Devils have endured a few bumps in the proverbial road. The most talked about among them is the foot injury sustained by senior forward Ryan Kelly. And of course, that 27-point thumping at Miami still smarts.
All in all, though, Duke is where it wants to be: in position for another Final Four run.
Time to hand out grades for players, coaches and overall performance as the Blue Devils prep for the home stretch.
Note: Grades are based both on overall performance and performance relative to expectation. It's nothing scientific but some combination of the two.
Breakdown: Mason Plumlee has gone from rotation contributor to POY candidate in less than one year's time. So he must be vastly improve, right?
I'll admit that the 6'10" forward has made some nice touch-ups to his game. He's fouling at a much lower rate on the defensive end and shooting a better percentage from the charity stripe when he gets fouled (although he's cooled off as of late).
That said, the spikes in Plumee's conventional metrics (points per game, rebounds per game, etc.) are largely attributable to more court time and a bigger role in the offense. Hats off to Plumlee, he's handled the transition well.
But its a bit hyperbolic to suggest that the Indiana native has suddenly blossomed into a superstar. Truth is, Plumlee was already a really good player before the spotlight found him.
Breakdown: In his first season as a starter, sophomore Quinn Cook has developed into a reliable floor general for the Blue Devils.
His assist rate is second in the ACC (per kenpom.com), and he's knocking down enough perimeter jump shots to keep defenses honest. The latter is a marked improvement from last season, when Cook shot just 25 percent from beyond.
Now there's no knowing how Quinn would have handled more minutes as a freshman—point guard is a notoriously difficult position to master for debutantes—but it's safe to say that this year's version of the Duke offense looks more balanced and fluid than last year's. Cook deserves a good deal of the credit.
Breakdown: It's been a season of met expectations for senior sharpshooter Seth Curry. Is it nice to see him over 40 percent again from three? Absolutely. Can I appreciate that slight jump in true shooting percentage? Without a doubt. Do I take account of the fact that he's playing a more important role in the offense? Most certainly.
But it's hard to say that any of the above surprises. Curry has realized his ceiling as a player and done well to maintain that level of play while taking on a few more responsibilities through the years.
Curry should also be commended for fighting through injury, particularly the nagging shin splints that have cut into his practice time.
If we could only erase the memory of that dud performance at Miami, this grade would be a smidge higher.
Breakdown: Duke fan or not, you gotta feel for a guy like Ryan Kelly.
The senior made small-but-noticeable improvements in each of his four years with the program, developing into a reliable outside threat with interior defensive utility. Through the season's first 15 games, Kelly was shooting better than 50 percent from beyond and checked in as the Blue Devils' most efficient offensive player.
Then the big blow, a foot injury that has the 6'10" forward sidelined indefinitely.
In Kelly's absence, the Blue Devils have gone just 3-2, perhaps an indication that the big man's ability to draw defenders away from the basket was essential to Duke's success
It's too small a sample size to draw any definitive conclusions, but Duke will surely miss Kelly's two-way presence.
Breakdown: The departure of leading scorer Austin Rivers at the end of last season opened the door for 5-star recruit Rasheed Sulaimon to play major minutes in this his first college season. And while Sulaimon isn't Rivers' peer as a pure scorer, one could argue that he's been a better fit for this Blue Devils team.
Start on the defensive end, where Sulaimon has been the team's best perimeter defender (per Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports. The Houston native is a major reason why Duke has gone from 70th in defensive efficiency last year to 11th this season (per kenpom.com).
On offense, Sulaimon is shooting a nice percentage from the outside and seems slowly to be filling out the rest of his game as the season progresses. His 25-point outburst against Maryland on Saturday was not only a season high but a clinic in offensive efficiency.
Relative to expectations—and considering the shoes he was expected to fill—Sulaimon is having the best season of any Duke player. And remember that's with an emphasis on defense, an area where he's helped transform a talented-but-flawed team into one with a championship-caliber statistical profile.
Breakdown: The second blue-chipper in Mike Krzyzewski's 2012 recruiting class started the season as a little-used reserve, averaging just 8.4 minutes per game through the season's first 16 games. In that time, Jefferson showed promise as an efficient scorer and active defender, but his work went mostly unnoticed.
Ryan Kelly's aforementioned foot injury changed all of that, thrusting Jefferson into a major role just as conference play was getting underway. The timing was awful, which is why Jefferson's play so far has been such a pleasant surprise.
The lanky debutante has been a fantastic—and versatile—defender. On offense, he's done well with the touches given and done great work along the offensive boards.
If there's a bugaboo right now with Jefferson's game, it's his foul rate. And with Duke's front court thin due to injury, that's no small concern.
On the whole, however, Jefferson's recent form has been among the more welcome developments this season in Durham. Whether or not he can continue to improve in his new role will have a significant bearing on his grade at season's end.
Breakdown: For a player who came into this season with hopes of cracking the starting lineup, Tyler Thornton has to feel a tinge of personal disappointment. Not only is he in an almost identical role to the on he played last year, but he's firmly behind two younger players—Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon—on the Blue Devils' backcourt depth chart.
There are, however, some positive takeaways from Thornton's season. He's been a nuisance on the defensive end, for example, leading the team in steal percentage, according to kenpom.com.
That said, Thornton's offensive game remains painfully one-dimensional. More than 80 percent of his shots on the season have come from three, despite the fact that he's shooting a modest 34.8 percent from distance. Thornton has also struggled with ball security, where his turnover rate is by far the team's worst (per kenpom.com).
In fact, it's hard to identify a single aspect of Thornton's offensive game that has improved substantially since last season. And because of that, it appears he'll remain in a reserve role.
Breakdown: You wondered heading into 2012-13 how Duke's offense would respond to the departure of freshman sensation Austin Rivers.
The naysayers pointed out that Rivers was the only Blue Devil capable of attacking teams off the dribble and getting to the rim. He would not, they reasoned, be easy to replace.
Optimists argued that Rivers was a bad fit all along, and that Duke could account for his absence by promoting greater balance and eschewing isolation basketball.
At this point in the season, it would seem that the optimists have a better case. Even without Rivers' 15.5 points per game, Duke's offensive production is almost identical to where it was a season ago.
In fact, the Blue Devils have actually improved in a number of key metrics, including (per kenpom.com):
Turnover percentage (38th overall to fifth)
Three-point shooting (59th to fourth)
Effective field goal percentage (38th to 31st)
Adjusted offensive efficiency (11th to 10th)
Granted, these are modest gains, but they at least offset the theory that this team couldn't function without its star shooting guard from a year ago. Credit the coaching staff and players for realizing that a change in philosophy was needed.
Duke is averaging three more assists per game than it was last year, and that shift has helped the team overcome a loss in pure scoring talent.
Breakdown: If you're looking for a reason to believe in this year's Duke Blue Devils, start on the defensive end. Coach K's bunch has been better in almost every important statistical category this year, including those adjusted for quality of opponent.
At 12th overall in adjusted defensive efficiency, Duke has the Final Four-caliber defense it didn't have last year, and the change starts on the outside. The on-ball/off-ball perimeter combo of Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon has been a tremendous boon to the Blue Devils.
Together, Cook and Sulaimon (along with Tyler Thornton) have turned Duke from a passive defensive unit into one that forces mistakes at a competitive level. Last year, the Blue Devils were sorry at 251st in turnover percentage, according to kenpom.com. This year, they rank 94th, and the difference is palpable.
Duke is much more complete team than it was a year ago. Defense is the reason why.
Breakdown: As alluded to earlier, the big puzzle this offseason was figuring out how to replace Rivers. Coach K and his staff have done that with aplomb, encouraging better ball movement while shoring up the team's perimeter defense.
It's also worth noting that Duke's freshman class, while not as as star-studded as the one coming in next year, has produced when called upon. Coach K picked up the players he needed to make this team successful and has plugged them in judiciously based on need and preparedness.
Don't let a recent semi-slide obscure the fact that Duke played some of the best basketball in America over the season's first two months.
Wins over Kentucky, Minnesota, Louisville, Ohio State and Temple were no small feat, particularly for a team replacing its leading scorer.
And while now-injured Ryan Kelly deserves some of the credit for that early success, I'd argue that the base cause of that improvement was a revamped defense led by Duke's young back court.
If Coach K's group can maintain its margins on D, the Blue Devils should find a way to work around Kelly's absence. Advanced metrics and simple observation both suggest that this team has the personnel to make a deep tournament run.