Duke Basketball: 5 Takeaways from the Start of ACC Play

Brian Pedersen@realBJPFeatured ColumnistJanuary 11, 2016

Duke Basketball: 5 Takeaways from the Start of ACC Play

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    The Duke Blue Devils are one of four ACC teams who have made it through the first two weekends of conference play without a loss, sitting at 3-0 in the league following Saturday's 82-58 home victory over the Virginia Tech Hokies. The Blue Devils (14-2) have won five straight since falling to the Utah Utes in overtime and have won six of seven since losing senior forward Amile Jefferson to a foot injury.

    The Blue Devils have shown some incredible mettle by being able to perform at this level despite such a thin roster, one that features only six players who are contributing on a regular basis.

    How has this been possible? Check out our takeaways from Duke's play to this point in ACC action.

These Players Are Well-Conditioned

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    Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has tended to thin out his rotation to only the most essential players when the schedule turns to conference play, but this year that's been the case for almost the entire season.

    Four players are currently averaging more than 30 minutes per game, which would be the first time that's occurred since the 2006-07 season. And the six players logging at least 25 minutes per game are the most since 2000-01.

    In the three ACC games, this playing time has become even more extended, as the five starters and freshman Luke Kennard have combined to play all but 24 of the 600 available minutes.

    Practices have had to be tinkered to minimize contact—for risk of having another player get hurt—but they still provide the conditioning needed for players to handle the extended minutes.

Marshall Plumlee is Up to the Challenge

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    No player has taken on a bigger—and more unexpected—role this season than senior center Marshall Plumlee, a career backup who has nearly tripled his minutes from 2014-15 and has been Duke's lone big man over the past month. Despite no support from the bench, the 7-footer is having a whale of a year.

    Plumlee, the last of three brothers to play for Duke, has set career highs in scoring in each of the past two games. He had 18 in a road win over the Wake Forest Demon Deacons and followed that up with 21 points and 10 rebounds against Virginia Tech.

    "He's playing with the ultimate confidence," guard Matt Jones said, per Laura Keeley of the News & Observer. "He's talking. He's being aggressive, and I feel like he's in a good place mentally. Guys are in his corner, and he feels that and is feeding off of it."

    Plumlee is averaging 7.6 points and 7.3 rebounds while shooting 69.6 percent.

Brandon Ingram Has Found His Groove

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    Earlier this season, heralded freshman Brandon Ingram looked like he wasn't that interested in buying into the whole college experience. He'd run hot and cold on offense yet would never show much emotion either way, and his play on the defensive end was lacking tremendously.

    Now he's Duke's best and most complete player and the one who is commanding the most attention from opponents.

    Ingram has taken his game to another level since moving from the three to the four, timed with Amile Jefferson's injury. In those seven games, he's scoring 19.6 points with 8.3 rebounds, shooting 50.5 percent overall and 41.9 percent from three-point range.

    And in the last two games, Ingram has blocked 10 shots and recorded four steals. For the season, he's averaging 16.4 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.7 blocks and 1.6 steals.

Luke Kennard is the Team MVP

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    He's only started one game for Duke and is seventh on the team in minutes per contest at 23.3, but without Luke Kennard the Blue Devils would be lacking a key ingredient: a bench.

    The 6'5” freshman guard is the lone reserve that Mike Krzyzewski relies on, and in conference play he's seeing more time on the court than fellow freshman guard Derryck Thornton. Kennard is scoring 17 points per game and shooting 60 percent in league play, turning into a much different player than he was billed as prior to arriving in Durham.

    A prolific scorer in high school who was expected to be Duke's three-point specialist, Kennard's 29.4 percent shooting from outside is fifth-best on the team. He's made up for this by taking the ball to the basket more often, resulting in 36 free throw attempts over the last six games.

    And Kennard is capitalizing on his trips to the line, shooting 93.2 percent. That ranks him fifth in Division I, one of many reasons he's arguably the most important bench player in the country.

The Toughest Games Are Yet to Come

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    Duke's 3-0 start in the ACC is great for building confidence and creating momentum, but it doesn't mean much when you consider who it has come against. The Blue Devils have played against teams that were picked to finish 11th (Wake Forest), 14th (Virginia Tech) and 15th (Boston College Eagles) in the 15-team league.

    The schedule starts to get tougher right away, starting with Wednesday's trip to surprising Clemson. The Tigers, who went 7-5 in nonconference play and opened the ACC with a road loss to the North Carolina Tar Heels, have followed that up with wins over the Florida State Seminoles, Syracuse Orange and Louisville Cardinals.

    After that are home games against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Syracuse before the Blue Devils embark on a critical three-game road trip. Between Jan. 23 and Feb. 2, they travel to face the North Carolina State Wolfpack, Miami Hurricanes and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.


    Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.