Normally in the middle of February, a number of teams begin to separate themselves from the rest of the field as the NCAA tournament approaches. However, this college basketball season has been unlike any other in recent memory.
With only five weeks left until the start of the 2013 NCAA tournament, a legitimate case can be made for nearly 20 teams that are all capable of securing a spot in the Final Four. Among that group, the Duke Blue Devils have been in the discussion as a substantial challenger to contend for a national championship.
First and foremost, their résumé this season backs up that claim:
- No. 1 RPI
- No. 1 non-conference schedule
- No. 2 overall schedule
- 22-2 overall record
- 8-2 vs. RPI Top 50
- 12-2 vs. RPI Top 100
Regarding the top teams in the country, Duke is one of the few that also possesses great balance on both ends of the floor. According to Ken Pomeroy, Duke is ranked inside the Top 20 in adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency.
Duke has also received outstanding leadership from its upperclassmen, including senior Mason Plumlee, who has played like a man possessed this season, averaging a double-double while becoming a leading candidate in the race for Naismith Player of the Year.
However, the team that started the season 15-0 is a complete contrast to the team that played the last nine games.
When senior Ryan Kelly was forced to miss time after reinjuring the same right foot that kept him out of last year's ACC and NCAA tournaments at the beginning of conference play, the Blue Devils' Final Four hopes were in significant jeopardy.
Without knowing the full extent of the injury or the duration of time that Kelly would be out, media and fans alike assessed that while the Blue Devils remain a good team without their 6'11" forward, hopes of a fifth championship looked bleak.
For the most part, they were right.
Case in point: Duke's next three games, which included a visit to North Carolina State, a home meeting with Georgia Tech and the second road game of the season at Miami.
The Blue Devils went 1-2 over the course of those three games, with the lone victory coming at home despite trailing at the half to a Yellow Jackets team that was winless in conference play coming in. Then came their demoralizing loss at the hands of Miami, leaving the impression that this Duke team was no longer elite.
As Kelly continued to miss time, which was soon revealed as an indefinite period but not the remainder of the year, Duke was left lost, without an identity to its basketball team midway through the season.
However, following its second loss of the season, Duke has since returned to its winning ways by reeling off six straight victories, which included avenging its first loss against North Carolina State, winning its first three road victories of the season and narrowly knocking off arch-rival North Carolina at home.
Plumlee has continued to perform at a high level, while fellow senior Seth Curry, who has dealt with a nagging right shin injury all season, has been terrific this year, shooting a career-best 45 percent from the field while averaging 16.8 points per game. Nationally overlooked point guard Quinn Cook has been stellar as well, averaging 12.0 points per game with a 2.5 assist-to-turnover ratio. The Blue Devils have also received invaluable contributions from freshmen Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson, who has seen his minutes increase in the absence of Kelly.
Could it be that the Blue Devils are finally learning how to play without a pivotal piece to their championship hopes?
While it won't be as difficult to plug Kelly's presence back into this team as it was Kyrie Irving's return in 2011, the biggest worry will be centered around his conditioning once he is able to play. Clearly, Duke's biggest flaw in his absence has been its defense. Kelly brings a different type of dynamic that most teams cannot duplicate with his length and versatility; those skills have been irreplaceable as he is able to defend in the low-post and from the outside.
Still, Duke remains in contention for a regular season ACC title and will more than likely remain in the discussion for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with a strong finish in the regular season and a great showing in Greensboro at the ACC tournament.
In the parity-filled college basketball landscape this season, seeding and tournament matchups will become more crucial than ever before.
Following its fourth NCAA championship in 2010, No. 1 seed Duke was one of the best teams in the land the year after. But the team suffered the misfortunes of having to travel cross-country to California and run into a buzz-saw known as Derrick Williams and Arizona in the Sweet 16 of the 2011 NCAA tournament. Last season, Lehigh's C.J. McCollum became a household name as he literally and figuratively shot No. 2 seed Duke out of the 2012 NCAA tournament in a stunning second-round upset, further proving the notion that Duke was one of the weakest top seeds a season ago.
This time around, the Blue Devils have vastly improved from top-to-bottom. When healthy, they are as good as anyone in the nation, as shown in their victories over Kentucky, VCU, Louisville and Ohio State earlier in the year. They've been consistent in the top five all season with or without Ryan Kelly and are expected to make a strong run in this year's tournament.
Currently, they are projected to receive another No. 1 seed in this year's tournament according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi. In Lunardi's latest update, Duke is shown in the East region along with possible No. 2 seed Syracuse, No. 3 seed Michigan State, No. 4 seed Butler and No. 5 seed Wisconsin.
No easy task, though, and Lunardi's projections will continue to fluctuate leading up to Selection Sunday.
In any case, Duke's Final Four chances hinge on one key return and the togetherness that the Blue Devils can hope to reclaim.
One healthy right foot could potentially separate Mike Krzyzewski's Blue Devils from a Sweet 16 caliber team subject to a second-weekend upset—to punching their ticket in Atlanta with the opportunity to compete for a fifth national championship.