Duke would like to be No. 1 again.
The third-ranked (for now) Blue Devils came out Saturday night against a blazing-hot North Carolina squad and smacked the small-ball Heels, 69-53.
It was a statement win in a week where the rest of the top was whimpering.
Top-ranked Gonzaga took its time shaking off Loyola Marymount in its first game as No. 1 while Duke was rolling. Second-ranked Indiana was content with watching Ohio State ruin its Senior Day on Tuesday. No. 4 Kansas got its share of the Big 12 title and sleep-walked through a loss at Baylor. No. 5 Georgetown looked good against Syracuse on Saturday, but everyone looks good against 'Cuse these days, and the Hoyas lost earlier in the week at Villanova.
And oh yeah, No. 6 Miami, the ACC champs, followed up a loss to Duke with a loss at lowly Georgia Tech this week. The 'Canes are sputtering into the postseason.
So, you want a tourney favorite? You need an overall No. 1 seed?
In the year where everyone is treating No. 1 like a hot potato, Duke is back at the front of the class raising its hand.
The Blue Devils have Ryan Kelly back, they're willing and they're worthy. Let's take a look at their credentials.
First, Duke was the best team in the nation in November and December. No one disputed that. The Blue Devils beat Minnesota by 18, VCU by nine and Louisville by five—all within three days in the Bahamas. They beat Ohio State at Cameron. They also had non-conference wins against likely tourney teams in Kentucky, Temple and Davidson on neutral courts.
Then Kelly went down, and they went 9-4 without him.
Since Kelly's return, the Blue Devils have played peeved and got payback on the Hurricanes in the game that will forever be known as the "Ryan Kelly game." Then they took care of business against Virginia Tech. Then they did what they did against the Heels Saturday night.
Duke jumped out to a 14-0 lead and the rest of the game was just going through the motions.
The one time the Tar Heels even put together something that remotely resembled a threat in the second half, Quinn Cook answered with back-to-back driving layups.
Kelly wasn't all that great in this one either. He scored a quiet eight points. But just having Kelly out there opens the floor for Mason Plumlee, who looked like pre-New Year's Plumlee, going for 23 points and 13 rebounds.
Seth Curry decided the game in the opening stanza by knocking in his first seven shots, and he would finish with 20 points. What may have been lost in the hoopla over Kelly's return is that Curry is pretty good and so is Plumlee.
Duke's three best players are seniors. That's a nice asset to have in March. Coach K has a point guard, Cook, with some fight in him. That's good too. And Duke is a team with something to prove after losing to Lehigh last year and struggling without Kelly.
Should the committee throw all those games out? No. But it should be taken into consideration, and it's safe to assume the Devils would have finished better than 9-4 in that stretch with Kelly.
Even with those losses, Duke's résumé is still as good as anyone's. If anyone has a beef, it's Gonzaga, but there will be a hesitancy to give the Zags the No. 1 overall seed because of their conference.
So, if the Devils keep their march going and roll through the ACC tourney, they're up. Let them play the favorite. They currently seem to be the only one who really wants it anyway.
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