Coming into the 2013-14 college basketball season, a regular-season ACC title was one of the smallest of Duke’s goals.
After all, anything short of a Final Four is often deemed a failure in Durham.
The Blue Devils came into the season as the No. 4-ranked team in both the AP and USA Today Coaches Polls, the highest of any ACC team. The high expectations were in place because uber-prospect Jabari Parker and transfer Rodney Hood were joining a roster that already included Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon, among others.
However, early losses to Kansas and Arizona tempered expectations slightly but not as much as dangerously close victories over East Carolina and Vermont. The Blue Devils only beat the Catamounts by a single point in Cameron Indoor Stadium, which had even the most optimistic Duke supporters struggling to defend the slow start.
Heading into ACC play, things started to look up, though, with victories over Michigan and UCLA. The vulnerable defense that was at fault for the losses to Kansas and Arizona and the closer-than-they-should-have-been wins against East Carolina and Vermont suddenly looked much better with Tyler Thornton and Amile Jefferson seeing more time.
Of course, that optimism was short-lived once conference play actually began. Duke is 2-2 through four league games, and if not for Sulaimon’s critical three-pointer in the final moments against Virginia, that record would be 1-3. Losses have only been half of the issue, though, because superstar Parker has hit something of a freshman wall, which has limited his production.
Frankly speaking, Duke’s slow start is crippling its chances at the ACC crown. Sure, 2-2 isn’t insurmountable, but the Blue Devils haven’t played any of the conference teams that realistically have a chance at winning the league. Much more difficult contests are on the horizon.
If we are assessing the Blue Devils’ ACC title chances, it is worth looking at the competition. Talent-wise, only three other teams in the league can and should be able to compete with Duke over the course of the long season.
North Carolina is one of them, but the Tar Heels are no longer a factor in the ACC race. This Jekyll-and-Hyde squad isn’t going to get hot enough to overcome a 0-3 start without P.J. Hairston, especially with another game against Syracuse and two more against Duke on the docket.
Pittsburgh may be less talented than the Tar Heels on paper, but it has actually won some games in ACC play. However, there is a reason the Panthers are only ranked No. 22 even though they are 16-1 and perfect in ACC play. The only team of note they have played—Cincinnati—beat them in one of the most offensively challenged contests of the season.
Until Pittsburgh beats someone more impressive than Maryland or Georgia Tech, its ACC title chances have to be taken with a grain of salt. However, the bad news for the Blue Devils is that they have to play at Pittsburgh but do not get a return game in Cameron.
That brings us to the overwhelming favorite to win the conference. Syracuse is in the driver’s seat in its first-ever ACC season and may be a safer bet than any other power-conference team to win its respective league.
Of course, college basketball features upsets all the time, but realistically the Orange only have a handful of games they can lose going forward. It is difficult to envision anyone coming into the Carrier Dome and knocking off Syracuse, and Jim Boeheim’s squad doesn’t have to go to Chapel Hill.
From a Duke perspective, the Blue Devils play the Orange twice in February. There are certainly opportunities in place for Mike Krzyzewski and company to make a run at the ACC championship, but playing in front of 35,000 fans at Syracuse will be a tall task. If the team that lost its only two true road games of the year shows up in the Carrier Dome, it won’t be pretty.
Duke may still control its own destiny in ACC play, but it has a razor-thin margin for error after the 2-2 start. With no home game against the Panthers and two contests against the powerhouse Orange, don’t be surprised when the Blue Devils enter the ACC tournament as the No. 3 seed.
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