Through the ups and downs of a wacky college basketball season, Duke remains among the top teams in the middle of February.
The Blue Devils have displayed great promise in certain games, demonstrating that they could potentially be the final team standing in March. The balance of veteran leadership of seniors Seth Curry and Mason Plumlee, along with the exuberant energy of underclassmen Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook and Amile Jefferson, has established great chemistry between them.
However, just like all the elite teams in college basketball this season, weaknesses are still present. The Blue Devils haven't found a replacement for senior Ryan Kelly. Andre Dawkins decided to redshirt his senior season, which deprived Duke of one of its elite outside shooters. Duke has also shown inconsistency on the defensive end.
In order to be a national championship contender, key players must eradicate their weaknesses. The following are suggested improvements for some vital Blue Devils.
Mason Plumlee has always been a key player in Durham, but in his final season, he has played better than anyone in the country. Plumlee has significantly improved on the offensive end and been a double-double machine all season
But you know what they say, nobody's perfect. Plumlee isn't either.
It would be in Mason's best interest to regain his confidence from the charity stripe. Even though he is shooting 13 percent better this season from the line, he's still been disappointing lately, especially since he was prospering in the beginning of the season from the free-throw line.
From shooting in the high 70s-early 80s, he has plummeted to 65.1 percent. An aggressive player like Plumlee must make the most of his free-throw opportunities.
In the eyes of many, including myself, Quinn Cook has made the biggest leap from the 2011-12 season. He has taken the reins as the starting point guard of the Blue Devils.
Even though he puts up the numbers of an above-average point guard (11.9PPG, 6.1APG), the sophomore guard still needs to develop the other intangibles of a point guard.
Although Duke already contains veteran leadership, Cook still is the point guard, and the point guard always dictates the atmosphere and energy of the team.
Cook still needs to allow the game to come to him, instead of forcing it upon himself to make plays. He has been a pleasant surprise for Coach K, but if he becomes the true leader at point that Coach K needs, Duke will be very comfortable in March.
The freshman from Texas has been a double-figures scorer this season, but he has more to give than just 11 points every night. Sulaimon has immense talent and has demonstrated it in moments during the 2012-13 season.
Yes, Duke has many weapons on the offensive end, which leads to a balance of shot distribution. However, I feel Sulaimon has even more to bring to the table.
Sulaimon needs to increase his aggression on the offensive end. He really has been just taking open shots. He is a great finisher, and it would be in his best interest to start taking his defender off the dribble.
If Sulaimon starts attempting to take it to the hole more, the floor will open up for Duke's lethal shooters.
With Ryan Kelly's injury, the player who has been given the biggest opportunity is Amile Jefferson.
The freshman from Philadelphia has all the potential in the world. He has a true athlete's body, but he simply is just raw talent at this point.
Coach K's original intentions were to limit Jefferson's minutes this season and polish him under seniors Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee.
Jefferson is about four inches and 35 pounds smaller than Kelly, even though Jefferson will be facing the same matchups. Jefferson possesses elite athleticism, which allows him to play against bigger opponents. He will need to be tougher on the defensive end to make up for his 6'7", 195-pound frame.
Tyler Thornton's role on the Blue Devils' squad has slightly dropped with the excellent play of Quinn Cook. Expected to be the starting point guard this season, Thornton now comes off the bench for Coach K.
It hasn't just been the improvement of Cook that has diminished Thornton's opportunities, but his play as well.
There isn't a specific aspect that Thornton needs to improve on, but in general he needs to correct his game as a whole. A reasonable starting point would be to improve his confidence on the offensive end. Confidence always leads to better play and will boost his disappointing 33.9-percent shooting.
With career highs in both points and field-goal percentage, it has truly been an impressive senior season for Seth Curry.
He has been a dominant shooter all season. His outside shooting has been a great complement with the inside presence of Mason Plumlee. Talk about a dynamic senior duo.
Just like with Plumlee, everyone needs improvements, and so does Curry.
Unfortunately, Curry doesn't play at his high level night in and night out. Inconsistency has defined his season. With Ryan Kelly injured, Duke needs a player on whom they can rely to always have 15-plus points every night. Even though Curry averages more than 16 a game, he doesn't always perform that way.
This was exemplified by his 24-point performance against Georgia Tech and then the next game dropping a goose egg on the University of Miami in a loss.
Curry is a streaky shooter, but he needs to be putting up numbers every night until Kelly comes back.
Ryan Kelly will step back onto the court for Duke this season from his infamous foot injury. That is not the question.
The question is: Will he be the same player he was before? We will all find out soon when he returns.
Duke needs the presence of his versatility. When he comes back, every game will mean something. This means he will need to come back right away and perform well. The Blue Devils do not have the patience to go through a slow recovery with Kelly.