Stop me if you've heard this one before: Duke is off to a great start and look like they have the tools to take the ACC and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
The same thing has been said about the past three or four Blue Devil teams, only to see them falter at the end of the season.
Writers, bloggers, and prognosticators are already trying to determine if this Duke team has what it takes to avoid the previous few seasons' collapses and make some noise come March.
But instead of constantly comparing this team to others, I thought it might be interesting to find what this group of Blue Devils needs to do and have happen to make a serious push to get back to the Final Four.
Have a leader on the court
It has become very clear that Jon Scheyer has been a leader, both by example and with his heady nature.
His assist-to-turnover ratio is mind-boggling considering he isn't really a "point guard." Add in the fact that he is deemed unathletic when compared to other elite players at his position, and you have an unlikely success story brewing.
He can shoot and score, which is a talent for even the best point guards. If he continues that kind of play, this Duke team can make that push.
Have multiple scoring options
Duke has just that with Scheyer, Kyle Singler, and Nolan Smith. While other players have shown they can chip in some double-digit scoring efforts, the "Firm" of Scheyer, Singler, and Smith have been the offensive powerhouse of this team.
All three can shoot, and Smith is crafty at getting to the basket and creating his own shot. If Singler can get a feel for playing while facing the basket, he will likely generate fouls, much like Scheyer does. Both compensate for the inability to blow past people by drawing contact.
It will take all three to continue playing at a high level. It will be interesting to see if there is a game where all three are off, and how the Blue Devils respond. It could happen, but you have to like the odds that at least one will be clicking in every game.
Have solid interior play
Duke still doesn't have a dominant big man, but what they do have so far is a rotation of effective big men—all 6'10" or taller.
Miles and Mason Plumlee are athletic, great jumpers, and potentially very good shot blockers. Brian Zoubek is starting to show he can be a serviceable big man with regard to rebounding and defensive presence as well.
At best, any of those three would be a fourth or fifth scoring option. However, their ability to help Duke win most rebounding battles, as well as provide an intimidating interior defense, is what makes them so valuable.
Their defensive abilities have greatly relieved the stress on the back courts' necessity to guard quicker players all the way to the basket.
Don't expect 20-10 games from these guys with regularity, but their presence is invaluable to Duke's success.
Have a utility man
In the past, that player has been the guy who seemingly does a little bit of everything.
Think David McClure.
This season, it appears Lance Thomas has ably stepped into that role.
Thomas has enough quickness as a defender to effectively guard smaller players out on the post. He is also a gutty player, if not overly physical.
He, like Zoubek, scores opportunistically on put backs and his energy level is generally very high.
Don't expect Thomas to put up huge numbers all the time. Most of the time his contributions will go unnoticed by all but the most observant fans. Still, it is those little things that will make or break a championship run.
Have a functional bench
Any team hoping to make a Final Four bid can't rely solely on the starters. As of now, the starting lineup appears to be set at Scheyer, Singler, Smith, Thomas, and Miles Plumlee.
Duke, and Mike Krzyzewski in particular, have often been criticized in the past for shrinking the bench in tight games and toward the end of the season.
I don't expect much of a deviation from that model as Krzyzewski wants his best players on the court more often.
His starters, with the exception of Plumlee, are all juniors or seniors and know how to pace themselves and maximize their energy while still playing at a high level.
Duke has used in no particular order, Mason Plumlee, Zoubek, and Andre Dawkins as the primary bench players. Freshman forward Ryan Kelly has also seen spot duty.
Dawkins provides a valuable option to rest Singler, Scheyer, or Smith. However, Dawkins is a freshman and subject to a swoon, which he showed a bit against Pennsylvania, which may have led to his five minutes of playtime against Clemson.
If Dawkins can be as productive as he was early in the season, he will be a key contributor.
Kelly, barring injury, foul trouble, or the right matchup situation, may have to settle for a similar role to what Miles Plumlee filled last year: bench warmer. However, I don't expect that to be a permanent thing, as Kelly is too talented to sit beyond one year.
Mason Plumlee has shown flashes of high level play and if he can continue to grow, he could be the key contributor with Zoubek off the bench.
Is the Duke bench great?
Are they serviceable?
At this point, I would have to say yes.
Have a defense
There was much speculation that Duke was going to run alot of zone this season, especially with the thin backcourt. However, Krzyzewski has stuck with his bread and butter man-to-man, and so far it is working.
Duke's defense is the best it has been in years, and Krzyzewski said recently that he feels this team gets the defensive concept better than any team has recently.
Any national title contender needs to play decent defense. If Duke can maintain the type of pressure, lock-down defense it has been, it should fare very well.
Good teams and national title contenders need good, if not great, coaching. Krzyzewski's greatness as a coach has never been in doubt. However, given the past seasons' shortfalls, his effectiveness has been questioned.
The Clemson game is a prime example that the 62-year-old Hall of Fame coach hasn't lost a step. His hairline may be receding just a bit to go along with a few more wrinkles, but he continues to maximize his team's potential and is excited to be coaching.
As long as he can find solutions to problems when they arise, like inserting Elliot Williams into the staring line up last season, the talent on this Duke team really has no limits.
Does all this mean Duke will be cutting down the nets come April?
It simply means they have the tools, right now, to make a run to the Final Four.
Every national champion needs a little luck, not just talent. That might include a favorable seed or draw in their bracket. That might also involve an upset or two of key competition within that bracket.
There are just too many factors to list.
When it all shakes out, as long as the Blue Devils have these factors working for them, there is no reason why they couldn't be headed for Indianapolis in March.
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