It's been another outstanding campaign for the Duke Blue Devils during the 2012-13 college basketball season. From a 15-0 start against the nation's No. 1 non-conference schedule, the 2012 Battle 4 Atlantis crown and a No. 1 ranking (twice), Duke has experienced its fair share of monumental highs.
However, the Blue Devils have also endured their share of lows, which included the unfortunate injury to senior Ryan Kelly and a historic blowout defeat at the hands of conference foe Miami on the road.
Through all of that, Duke remains as one of the best teams in the country from top to bottom. But can it be the final team standing on April 8 in the Georgia Dome cutting down the nets and claiming their fifth national championship?
In one word: Absolutely.
Here are the five reasons why the Duke Blue Devils can place themselves in a favorable position to make a deep run in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, reach their 16th Final Four in school history and capture the 2013 National Championship.
Seniors Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee were all a part of Duke's last championship in 2010. While Curry was in a redshirt year after transferring from Liberty University, and both Kelly and Plumlee were not counted upon as vital contributors in their freshman seasons, all three players have experienced the journey towards the ultimate prize in college basketball.
Fast forward three years later.
Duke is in the middle of another outstanding season, with a 19-2 overall record, and has earned the label as one of the favorites to reach this year's Final Four while the three senior leaders have been tremendous thus far.
Mason Plumlee has placed himself in a comfortable position for Naismith College Player of the Year with his play this season. He is currently averaging a team-leading double-double with 17.6 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. His overall improvement has given the Blue Devils that dominant inside presence that they've lacked for a number of seasons.
One of the most lethal three-point threats in the nation, Seth Curry has been remarkable for Duke in his senior year. Despite playing the entire season with a nagging right shin injury, it has not slowed Curry's production on the offensive end down. He is second in scoring for the Blue Devils with 16.3 points per game while shooting 43 percent from three.
Before re-injuring his right foot on January 8—the same foot that cost him the final three games of last season—Ryan Kelly provided Duke with his irreplaceable ability to stretch an opposing defense. The versatile 6'11" forward was connecting on 52 percent of his three-point shots at the time of his injury while averaging 13.4 points per game. His loss, however, has been more detrimental to the Duke defense.
In the Blue Devils' last six games without Kelly, they are allowing 1.03 points per possession. While a timetable for his return has not been announced, it is highly likely that he will return just prior to the beginning of the ACC Tournament.
With all three players on the floor, Duke is as good as anybody in the country. Their leadership qualities, invaluable experience and stellar play separate the Blue Devils from the rest of the nation and position them in a favorable role as a top contender for their fifth national title.
In order for Duke to make a run towards its fifth national title, it will have to maintain a highly efficient offensive attack that ranks seventh in the Ken Pomery ratings. With Mason Plumlee improving his low-post game, it presents the Blue Devils with the option to score more from the inside than to rely solely on their three-point shooting like in recent seasons.
Duke has also seen a great deal of its success come from its starting lineup this season. Through 21 games, the starters are averaging an NCAA-best 67.6 points per game while accounting for 86.6 percent of their team's total scoring (stat via GoDuke.com).
While their lack of production from the bench has been one of their main weaknesses, freshman Amile Jefferson has provided the Blue Devils with another capable scorer as Ryan Kelly continues to sit due to injury. In the last six games, Jefferson has averaged 8.5 points with an increase in playing time (stat via ESPN Game Log). Once Kelly is able to return, Jefferson should be a reliable asset with the experience he is currently receiving in Kelly's absence.
As the NCAA Tournament nears, the Duke offense will be a tall task for any team to derail.
A staple of the Duke offense is its consistent success from behind the three-point line. This season has been no different. Duke is currently ranked sixth in the country from three-point distance, connecting on 41 percent of attempts, with three players—Ryan Kelly, Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon—shooting over 40 percent.
One of the main reasons behind the high percentage can be attributed to the improvement of Mason Plumlee. As his inside game has progressed throughout his career, he has commanded the attention of opposing defenses. Whenever teams collapse to force Plumlee into making a bad decision, he has been able to find the open shooter for the three. And wide-open looks for Duke's outside shooters is a recipe for disaster for the opponent.
Look for this to be a continuing trend throughout the remainder of the season, possibly culminating in another championship for the Blue Devils.
For the Duke defense, 2011-12 was a season to forget. The Blue Devils featured one of the worst defenses in the country last season, and also arguably the worst under head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
Looking back, the Blue Devils finished the season ranked an uncharacteristic 70th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency, compiled by Ken Pomeroy, which measures points allowed per defensive possession. It was the first season since Pomeroy began keeping the statistic in 2003 that Duke ranked outside the top 20.
However, things are back to normal for the Blue Devils this season.
Duke has improved its numbers drastically, as the team is currently ranked 15th in adjusted defensive efficiency by Pomeroy. The Blue Devils also rank fourth in the ACC and 37th in the nation allowing 0.91 points per possession (stat via Statsheet).
Much of their defensive success can be attested to three players in particular—Quinn Cook, Ryan Kelly and Rasheed Sulaimon. Cook and Sulaimon are two of the best on-ball defenders in the ACC, while Kelly's length on the perimeter and inside has also caused teams serious problems.
Although the Duke defense has clearly regressed since Kelly's injury, his inevitable return later in the season will allow it to return back to its normal state, which was a driving force behind the 15-0 start.
The 2012-13 college basketball season has been referenced as having the most parity between the top teams in the country. Among the list of teams, Duke sits firmly at the top of the discussion as being a plausible contender for the title.
Without a doubt, one of the main reasons Duke can take claim of the 2013 National Championship comes down to its Hall of Fame head coach, Mike Krzyzewski, and his elite group of assistant coaches.
Krzyzewski's numbers in the NCAA Tournament speaks for itself.
—Four national championships
—11 Final Fours
—Winningest active coach in the NCAA Tournament (.767 winning percentage)
—Most wins in NCAA Tournament history (79)
As Duke sits inside the Top Five with a 19-2 overall record, the No. 1 RPI ranking and Coach K at the forefront, the Blue Devils should be an imposing force to stop towards their journey to Atlanta, Georgia and their fifth national title.