As conference play rolls around, Duke has wins over UConn and Gonzaga, while only losing a single game at Wisconsin. John Scheyer is emerging as an All-America candidate and Coach K has size that he has never seen in his 30 years in Durham.
This team has all of the signs of being different than those Duke squads of the past three years, all of whom played only a single game beyond the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament. But a closer look shows that the jury is still out on the Blue Devils.
A quick look shows that the ‘08-‘09 team had wins at Purdue and against Xavier, both top 10 at the time, with only a loss at a surprising Michigan team. In ‘07-‘08, Duke had posted wins over Marquette and Wisconsin, while suffering it’s only loss in overtime against Pitt.
Even in ‘06-‘07, when Duke infamously lost to VCU in the first round after going a mere 8-8 in the ACC, they won games over ranked Georgetown and Gonzaga teams while only losing to Marquette, on its way to a No. 5 ranking at the start of conference play.
Those teams all featured players who either were All-Americans, or were supposed to emerge as All-America type players. While some, like Gerald Henderson, became first-team All-ACC talents, others, like Josh McRoberts, folded under the weight of expectations.
Those teams ended up losing in March because they faced teams who were able to run past Duke’s traditional pressure defense and force the Blue Devils to take too many contested three-pointers.
This current version of the Blue Devils, like those of the recent past, will not out run or jump over most top 10 opponents, which on the surface would indicate that this Duke team is doomed to, once again, end the season prematurely.
There are, however, some key differences between this team and other Duke teams that might save them from another March disappointment.
First, this team is experienced. Of the seven Duke players who average at least 15 minutes per game, three are seniors and two are juniors. Also, among Duke's top three scorers (Scheyer, Smith, and Singler), who have accounted for 57.3 percent of Duke’s total points as well as 69.1 percent of Duke’s assists, are two juniors and a senior.
This experience has led to Duke improving in some key areas over the recent past. Currently, Duke has an assist to turnover ratio of 1.53:1, which if it holds (it won’t) would be, by far, the best of the Krzyzewski era, beating out the championship team of 2001 (1.32:1). Even if it drops off during conference play (it will) it should still be much improved over those of 2009, 2008 (both 1.08:1), 2007 (0.85:1), and 2006 (1.11:1).
This experience has also led to success at the foul line, where Duke ranks in the top 20 nationally at over 75 percent, compared to the past three years, when the Blue Devils broke 70 percent only once.
Besides experience, this Duke team has shown the ability, and their coach has shown the willingness, to adapt to their opponent on both ends of the floor.
In the past, Duke would bring a high pressure defense, whether their opponents got by them or not. This was most evident last year, when Villanova simply ran past Duke in the Sweet 16. This year, Duke has shown that they can back off, force a challenged shot, and get rebounds, as they did against UConn, but can still dial up the pressure, as they did against Gonzaga.
Krzyzewski praised his squad’s team defense, calling them, “the first team in seven or eight years that really understands (Duke’s) defense,” after his team held Gonzaga to its worst scoring output in 25 years.
On offense, Duke is still shooting a lot of three-pointers. They are currently second in the ACC behind only Miami in three-point attempts as a percentage of total field goal attempts according to Ken Pomeroy.
They are also, however, using their size inside to create second chance opportunities. Despite coming off the bench in every single game so far this year, Brian Zoubek is third in the ACC in offensive rebounds per game. Zoubek, Lance Thomas, and Miles Plumlee have each averaged over five points per game to help bolster Duke's inside scoring presence.
So is Duke really any different?
Right now, the answer is yes.
But Duke fans will have to wait until February and March, where 75 percent of Duke’s total losses have occurred over the past three years, before they know if this team will be able to produce different results.