No college basketball league did more to improve itself while the conference-realignment merry-go-round was spinning this offseason than the ACC, but it was still a familiar name that sat atop the preseason projections.
The ACC may have added Syracuse, Notre Dame, Pittsburgh and Louisville (starting next season), but Duke was ranked higher than any of its ACC brethren at No. 4 in the initial AP and USA Today Coaches polls.
Expectations were sky-high before the Blue Devils ever took the floor thanks to the returns of Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon and the premier additions of Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. At the very least, this squad was going to win the ACC and find itself on the short list of candidates for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
However, with ACC play right around the corner, the Blue Devils may not actually be the cream of the crop in the league after all. Mike Krzyzewski’s squad sits at a solid 8-2, but those two losses came against the only two opponents Duke faced that are currently ranked in either poll.
Yes, one of the nine victories was against Michigan, but the Wolverines are a pedestrian 6-4 and were wildly overrated to start the season thanks largely to last year’s accomplishments of Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. (who are no longer there).
It is also worth mentioning that the Blue Devils needed late escapes at home against East Carolina and Vermont (which Duke only beat by one point on a late free throw). Coach K and Co. look much more vulnerable than many people expected through the early going.
That’s not to say there aren’t a number of positive signs through 10 games that will help Duke compete for a conference title once league play begins.
The bar was set incredibly high for Parker and Hood, yet somehow they have both surpassed it. Parker is the best stat sheet-stuffer in major college basketball and is averaging 22 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 1.4 blocks a game, while Hood is posting nightly numbers of 18.9 points, five rebounds and just less than one steal a game.
Most impressively, though, is the efficiency with which these superstars score. Parker is shooting 55 percent from the field, 47 percent from downtown and 75.4 percent from the free-throw line. Hood is shooting 56.5 percent from the field, 45.7 percent from downtown and 85 percent from the free-throw line.
While Parker and Hood have drawn the most headlines, Cook is also playing the best basketball of his career from the point guard spot. He is scoring 14.7 points and dishing out 6.6 assists a night and, most importantly, has better than a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Behind Parker, Hood and Cook, Krzyzewski has the best offense in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted offensive efficiency ratings. In the battle for ACC supremacy this year, nobody will be able to find the basket as consistently as the Blue Devils in the critical moments.
However, if Duke is eventually outclassed in the ACC, there are a handful of potential culprits that will take the blame.
The Blue Devils rank an abysmal 101st in Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings, which almost entirely cancels out the fact that they are so excellent on offense. They also rank an alarming 284th in the nation in rebounds per game, and that’s through 10 games, including contests against the likes of Davidson, Florida Atlantic, UNC Asheville and Gardner-Webb.
There is no established big-man rotation that Krzyzewski appears comfortable with yet, and the lack of a strong interior presence is a major contributing factor to Duke’s defense and rebounding concerns. Furthermore, for as great as Cook has been on offense, he is more of a personal escort to the rim on the defensive end.
That’s not even getting into the mysterious disappearance of Sulaimon. He never saw the floor against Michigan and only played five minutes in a blowout win against Gardner-Webb. It’s hard to imagine the Blue Devils winning the ACC without Sulaimon being somewhat of a factor for the entire season.
So with all this in mind, where do the Blue Devils stand in the conference pecking order?
It is probably safe to put them ahead of Virginia Tech, Maryland, Clemson, Wake Forest, North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Florida State, Miami and Boston College. They are also head-and-shoulders better than Virginia, although Joe Harris could give Duke’s defense some problems.
The comparisons get more tenuous when analyzing how the Blue Devils stack up against Pittsburgh, North Carolina and Syracuse.
The Panthers are on the short list of ACC contenders for now because they are undefeated, although that is largely due to a tissue-soft nonconference schedule. Duke will be much more battle-tested when league play begins, which is a testament to Krzyzewski’s willingness to challenge his team through scheduling. Let’s give the nod to the Devils here.
That leaves the Tar Heels and Orange.
North Carolina already has three monumental victories over Kentucky, Michigan State and Louisville (but also inexplicably lost to UAB and Belmont), and Marcus Paige has emerged as an absolute superstar. Even James Michael McAdoo is playing well, and the Heels may eventually add P.J. Hairston to the mix when his situation is sorted out.
A trio of Hairston, Paige (19.2 points, 4.2 assists and 1.7 steals a game) and McAdoo (13.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks a game) will be difficult for Duke’s porous defense to stop.
The Orange are undefeated and ranked No. 2 in both major polls. C.J. Fair is a stud in the making down low (18.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.9 steals a game), while freshman Tyler Ennis (12.3 points, five assists and 2.6 steals a game) has surpassed expectations as a floor-general and overall playmaker. Furthermore, the always-difficult 2-3 could at least slow Parker and Hood.
Who wins the ACC?
Both North Carolina and Syracuse are capable of exploiting Duke’s weaknesses with terrific ball-handlers against Cook and strong interior players that can rebound. It’s not difficult to imagine Fair and McAdoo having their way down low against the Blue Devils’ big-man rotation.
Duke is unquestionably in the top three in the ACC pecking order, but if it wants to be the one holding the league trophy come March, there are some questions that need to be answered rather quickly.
Follow and interact with Bleacher Report writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.