College basketball seasons are defined by performances in March, but there are still plenty of important games that help pave the road to the Madness.
Duke is looking to bounce back from a rather disappointing 2013-14 campaign by its lofty standards. An ACC title and deep run in the NCAA tournament are all well within the realm of possibility for a squad that will be anchored by a talented batch of freshmen.
Some games will be more important than others if the Blue Devils want to achieve those goals. Here is a look at three critical contests in particular while a full schedule can be found at Duke's official website.
At Wisconsin, Dec. 3
There is plenty at stake in this early season showdown with Wisconsin.
For one, it is an incredible test for a young Duke team because the Kohl Center is one of the nation's most intimidating venues. Duke always brings out the best in the opposing crowd, and playing in a raucous venue like this will help get the freshmen ready for ACC play.
This game also represents an opportunity to grab a marquee victory on the road for seeding purposes and the overall resume because Wisconsin may very well be in the top five at tipoff.
Finally, Jahlil Okafor will have the chance to prove himself as the potential No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA draft against one of the most established big men in the nation. Frank Kaminsky could test Okafor's ability to extend his game beyond the paint if they guard each other, and he will battle on the boards all game with the Duke center.
The Badgers were a Kentucky miracle three-pointer away from playing for the national title last season and return the majority of their core in Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig. No team on Duke's schedule bring the combination of Final Four experience and overall talent like Wisconsin does.
Throw in conference pride as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, and this is an important early game for Duke as it tries to set the tone for the entire season.
North Carolina, Feb. 18
You are reading an article about Duke basketball, so there should be no explanation necessary about why a contest with hated rival North Carolina would be on this list.
The Blue Devils and Tar Heels split their two regular-season showdowns last year, and both have serious ACC title aspirations this time around. Picking up a head-to-head victory would be critical in the conference race, and it is necessary for Duke to defend its home court considering it also has to travel to Chapel Hill.
If Wisconsin represents a test for Okafor against Kaminsky, then this game is the test for young point guard Tyus Jones. Marcus R. Fuller of the St. Paul Pioneer Press was looking forward to this showdown as early as last season:
Marcus Paige could challenge for ACC Player of the Year thanks to his ability to control the flow of a game from the point guard spot, hit from beyond the three-point line and set up his teammates with crisp, precise passes. If North Carolina is going to win the ACC, Paige will be the primary reason why.
No pressure or anything, Mr. Jones.
This team isn't just Paige and company, though. Head coach Roy Williams has Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson, Joel Berry, J.P. Tokoto, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks at his disposal, giving him options all over the floor.
A Scrabble contest between Duke and North Carolina would be important, so a basketball showdown with ACC title implications certainly qualifies for this list.
At Virginia, Jan. 31
This is Duke's only game against the defending ACC regular-season and tournament champions, so if it is going to be the bully on the conference block this year, it has to wrestle the title away from Virginia.
The Cavaliers lost Joe Harris, which should not be overlooked, but that doesn't mean they are going to return to mediocrity. Malcolm Brogdon, Anthony Gill and Justin Anderson are a formidable trio while Mike Tobey and London Perrantes could develop into a solid one-two punch on the post and perimeter over the course of the year.
However, the overarching concern with this game could be Virginia's unique, slow-it-down style of play.
Duke is a young team that features a number of freshmen, which means it will be critical to avoid frustration with a slower tempo. It will also be important that the Blue Devils don't try to compensate for that when they get the ball by pushing the pace too much in transition and making sloppy turnovers and mistakes.
Another subplot here is the fact that Mike Krzyzewski was upset and fearful for his players' safety when Duke lost at Virginia last season and the crowd stormed the floor.
He suggested as much in the aftermath, according to The Associated Press (via ESPN.com):
Look, do you know how close you are to—just put yourself in the position of one of our players or coaches. I'm not saying any fan did this, but the potential is there all the time for a fan to just go up to you and say, 'Coach you're a [expletive],' or push you or hit you. And what do you do? What if you did something? That would be the story. We deserve that type of protection.
I'm always concerned about stuff like that, especially at this time of the year. What if that happened and we get a kid suspended? That becomes the national story. It's not all fun and games when people are rushing the court, especially for the team that lost. Again, congratulations to them, and they should have fun and burn benches and do all that stuff. I'm all for that. They have a great school, great kids, but get us off the court. That's the bottom line.
As long as the Blue Devils win this time around, they won't have to worry about it.
Follow me on Twitter: