Few college basketball teams had higher expectations than Duke did heading into the 2013-14 season.
The Blue Devils were ranked No. 4 in the initial AP and USA Today Coaches Poll and had a borderline absurd amount of talent on their roster between the returns of Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon and the arrivals of Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker, who was the best prospect since LeBron James before Andrew Wiggins made it cool.
Then the actual games started.
Between losses to Kansas and Arizona and alarmingly narrow victories over East Carolina and Vermont, the Blue Devils were far from dominant in the early going.
Yes, Parker surpassed the sky-high expectations that were in place for him, Hood was making the one-two punch seem like two Batmans instead of Batman and Robin and Cook was playing the best offensive basketball of his career, but something was off.
The only thing more nonexistent than Duke’s defense was its rebounding effort. As of Dec. 20, the Blue Devils ranked an abysmal 259th in the nation in rebounds per game.
What’s more, Sulaimon’s picture should have been plastered on milk cartons throughout Durham because he was nowhere to be found. He never saw the floor against Michigan and only played sparingly in a blowout victory over Gardner-Webb.
Guard Tyler Thornton was not shy when discussing Sulaimon after that showdown with the Wolverines to Laura Keeley of The News & Observer:
“As a man, he has to step up and accept what he needs to do. We need him. That’s all I can really say about that.”
Despite the up-and-down beginning to the season, this team is loaded with young talent that still hasn’t completely grown accustomed to playing with each other.
There is reason to be optimistic, especially after recent victories over UCLA and Michigan. Duke will peak at the right time with ACC play right around the corner and challenge for a conference title and spot in the Final Four.
Offensively, the Blue Devils have been one of the best teams in the country.
Ken Pomeroy has them ranked No. 2 in the nation in pace-adjusted offensive efficiency ratings as of Dec. 20, and that is with some early growing pains.
There is no reason to expect Cook to fall off going forward, even though he has been inconsistent in his career because he will gradually become even more comfortable playing alongside Parker and Hood. If Cook continues to put up nightly numbers of 14.6 points and 6.5 assists while keeping his turnovers low, there aren’t many teams in the country that can stop Duke’s attack.
Additionally, the Blue Devils faced zones from Michigan and UCLA and made adjustments throughout the game.
It doesn’t get any better than Mike Krzyzewski in terms of preparing his team for the different defenses they will face in ACC play (even your patented 2-3 zone, Syracuse), so those early experiences will pay dividends come crunch time.
Even Duke’s defense has shown signs of life.
The Blue Devils limited the Wolverines to 69 points and the Bruins to 63 points and forced a combined 25 turnovers in those two wins. They have climbed to No. 66 in Pomeroy’s defensive ratings, which isn’t great, but it is much better than the mid-100s rankings that Duke was saddled with early in the season.
The rebounding and lack of a strong interior presence on either end is still a concern, but there are so many weapons on offense that Duke should be able to work through it when it has the ball.
The post play on defense and rebounding will never be a strength, but eventually Coach K will find a rotation that will allow everyone to settle into their respective roles.
Between Amile Jefferson, Marshall Plumlee and Josh Hairston, the Blue Devils will at least be able to keep their heads above water enough for their excellent offense to win them plenty of marquee games.
Finally, while caution should be used when drawing conclusions from a small sample size, Sulaimon looked like his old self against UCLA. He hit two three-pointers, grabbed five rebounds and dished out four assists on his way to an impressive game.
Who wins the ACC?
With Parker, Hood, Cook and perhaps a resurgent Sulaimon, the Blue Devils will peak in conference play and challenge Syracuse for a conference crown.
Follow and interact with Bleacher Report writer Scott Polacek on Twitter @ScottPolacek.