Following the conclusion of the 2012-13 college basketball regular season, it has been assumed that there is still no prohibitive national championship favorite.
Although, one team can make a strong case that they have earned that prestigious label.
The Duke Blue Devils have landed back in a familiar role at this juncture of the season. Since the return of Ryan Kelly to the starting lineup, Duke is back to its midseason form and is now viewed as the odds-on favorite to capture the 2013 national championship.
Accompanying that statement, here are the five reasons why the Duke basketball program is on a clear path to capture its fifth title in school history, as we are less than one week away from the start of the NCAA tournament.
A great deal of Duke's success this season has come from a highly efficient offense with a formidable starting five.
As a team, Duke ranks eighth in the country in scoring (78.4), 14th in field-goal percentage (47.9 percent) and fourth in three-point field-goal percentage (41.6 percent).
Additionally, the Blue Devils possess the highest scoring starting lineup in the country, as their starters account for 68.6 points per game, which is nearly 88 percent of the team's total scoring.
With a healthy Ryan Kelly back into the fold, it has allowed the Duke offense to become more spread out on the perimeter with an array of three-point shooters, leaving Mason Plumlee even more room to operate in the low post.
That type of inside-out attack is unquestionably the main component that will enable Duke to reach the Final Four with a chance to capture its fifth national championship.
Stats via ESPN.com
As Ryan Kelly continued to nurse his injured right foot well into conference play, Duke's chances of making a deep run in this year's NCAA tournament were slowly fading away.
Without its third leading-scorer, Duke was forced to fill that void quickly. Furthermore, teams were beginning to key on Mason Plumlee with constant pressure and double-teams, thus slowing down the Naismith College Player of the Year candidate.
Kelly's absence was sorely missed on the defensive end. And that was most telling in the Blue Devils only four losses of the season.
Without the 6'11" forward, Duke gave up an average of 82.5 points per game in its four losses this season while allowing 53 percent shooting from the field.
But, that's all in the past now.
Kelly made his highly anticipated on-court return on March 2 in a rematch against the Miami Hurricanes. After scoring a career-high 36 points while leading Duke to a 79-76 victory, his sudden impact rejuvenated a Blue Devils team that had looked like a considerably flawed basketball team.
With his ability to stretch a defense from beyond the arc (53.1 percent from three-point range) to taking defenders off the dribble and scoring from midrange, the Duke offense has returned to its original explosiveness that saw them start the season with an unblemished 15-0 record.
After finishing the regular season with an impressive three-game winning streak and with Kelly back in the lineup, Duke is now poised to become the top contender for the national championship.
Following three subpar seasons, senior Mason Plumlee started his senior year at Duke on an impressive note.
After the first five games of the season, it was clear that this was going to be a much different year for Plumlee in terms of production.
As Duke continued to compile win after win, Plumlee's value skyrocketed as he took full control in the race for Naismith College Player of the Year.
Despite Duke losing the lead in conference play, the 6'10" big man's numbers remained superb, as he consistently averaged a double-double throughout the regular season.
Without his progression this season, Duke is only considered as a team reliant on its three-point shooting like in years past, which was also its downfall in the NCAA tournament.
However, with a strong low-post presence in Plumlee, the Blue Devils will not be susceptible to an early-round upset in this year's event.
The Blue Devils will go as far as Plumlee can take them. And he has his sights set on Atlanta, Ga.—the host for the 2013 Final Four.
The three-point shot has been a staple of the Duke offense for many years. It has often brought great results in their success; however, it has also resulted in various collapses in recent memory.
No such undoing will happen in this year's NCAA tournament.
Duke is among the best in the country in three-point field goal percentage (41.6 percent), as the Blue Devils are shooting their best mark from beyond the arc in seven seasons. Three Blue Devils—Ryan Kelly, Seth Curry and Quinn Cook—are shooting over 40 percent respectively.
Since Duke has finally received heavy contributions on the inside from Mason Plumlee, it has given its shooters more space to operate from the outside.
With teams forced to collapse on Plumlee, Duke draws opposing defenses into giving up wide-open looks for its three-point shooters.
In the tournament, when Duke is hitting from deep—which it has all season long—it will be a disastrous end for the opposition on the Blue Devils' road to the Final Four.
The fifth and final reason that Duke is this year's championship favorite is its established resume over the course of the season.
Don't believe me? Look at the facts.
- No. 1 RPI
- No. 1 SOS
- No. 1 NCSOS
- 4-0 vs. Top-Five Teams
- 7-1 vs. RPI Top 25
- 10-2 vs. RPI Top 50
No other team in the country possesses those numbers.
Time after time again, Duke has been tested. At home, on the road and on a neutral floor.
Sure, they've taken some bumps on the road, as has every team in the country. But in the face of adversity, the Blue Devils have answered each challenge that has been thrown their way.
At this point, the only way the Blue Devils slip up in the NCAA tournament is if they beat themselves.
But don't count on that happening anytime soon.