Throughout this season, at least two things have been consistent in college basketball—the solid play of the Duke Blue Devils and the constant criticism against them.
Perhaps the Blue Devils' lack of success in recent NCAA tournaments is the reason many of the so-called "experts" were reluctant to predict the Blue Devils to achieve what they did on Sunday night. Maybe it was the departure of Gerald Henderson and Elliot Williams that made Duke everyone's favorite high-ranked team to bet against throughout the year.
But regardless of the cause of the criticism thrown Duke's way, that criticism has been a staple of the 2009-10 college basketball season.
Prior to the start of the season, most of the questions surrounding the Blue Devils centered on their options, or lack thereof, at the point guard spot.
Jon Scheyer had success at the end of the 2008-09 season running Duke's offense, but that didn't stop Duke from recruiting Eric Bledsoe and John Wall in the offseason. Since neither of those players panned out for Duke, Scheyer was set to return as the Blue Devils' floor general.
Scheyer's return to point brought with it a fair share of criticism from fans and analysts, and understandably so. He's not the stereotypical quick point guard that tends to headline one of the top teams in America.
But Scheyer quickly put that criticism to rest by playing at an All-American level. After his first four games, Scheyer tallied 21 assists and zero turnovers. While that ratio gradually dropped (it had to), he remains in the top 10 nationally in assist-to-turnover ratio and has emerged as one of the most consistent point guards in the country.
Point guard issues weren't the only negative evaluations thrown at Duke early on in the season. Their apparent lack of athleticism came under national attention when Doug Gottlieb called Duke "alarmingly unathletic" during half time of Duke's win over Arizona State early in the year.
Sure, the Devils don't have an abundance of players who can burn you off the dribble or soar above the rim, but the non-athletic jab didn't hold water throughout the season as the Blue Devils beat, and consistently out-rebounded, several extremely athletic squads throughout the year.
Next up on the criticism buffet for Duke was their apparent inability to win on the road.
Duke lost four of their first five road games, but turned things around in the second half of conference play and finished the regular season at 5-5 on the road. Go ahead and put down Duke's win against Baylor as a road win as well since it was pretty much a home game for the Bears.
Once that assessment of the Blue Devils started to die down, their lack of a consistent presence in the post to compliment Duke's dominant trio of Scheyer, Kyle Singler, and Nolan Smith became the next big question Duke needed to answer.
Brian Zoubek did just that after a breakout performance against Maryland where the senior seven-footer totaled 16 points and 17 rebounds. Zoubek's post play stayed at a consistent high level from that point on. The Plumlee brothers, perhaps more relaxed with Zoubek carrying the biggest load in the paint, began to reemerge after disappearing a bit after a big game against Wake Forest in mid-January.
With the Blue Devils' post issues out of the way, the next big criticism surrounding Duke came when they clinched a No. 1 seed in the tournament.
Many thought that West Virginia was more deserving of a No. 1 seed than Duke, but the selection committee was right by giving the spot to the Blue Devils.
Duke was ranked higher than the Mountaineers for the entire month before Selection Sunday. Like Duke, West Virginia won their conference tournament. However, they didn't finish atop the Big East in the regular season while Duke tied for first in the ACC conference season. West Virginia finished out the regular season strong, but Duke finished it just a little stronger, winning 12 of their last 13 games prior to Selection Sunday.
It wasn't just their tournament seeding that came under fire, however. Several felt that Duke's path to the Final Four was a cakewalk compared to the other (and apparently more deserving) No. 1 seeds.
Of course, Kansas lost to No. 9 seed Northern Iowa and Syracuse lost to No. 5 seed Butler (who is in the Final Four) while Duke beat No. 8 seed California, No. 4 seed Purdue, and No. 3 seed Baylor on their way to Indianapolis.
Purdue might have been without their best player, but they looked like a lock to earn a No. 1 seed just a few weeks prior to the tournament. Getting them as a No. 4 seed was a tougher draw than many people realized.
Duke may have gotten away with a weak No. 2 seed in their bracket in Villanova, but they didn't have to play them. Instead, the Blue Devils drew Baylor in the Elite Eight, easily the toughest No. 3 seed in the tournament. In fact, the argument could be made that Duke's Elite Eight game against Baylor (held just a few minutes away from the Bears' campus) was the toughest game played by any No. 1 seed in the tournament, tougher perhaps than Kentucky's game against West Virginia.
Since beating Baylor, the Devils have even drawn criticism that a bad call by the refs in their favor was the deciding factor in the game. Of course, every charge that Duke takes becomes a point of contention for college basketball fans.
Now that Duke is in the Final Four for the first time in six years, the Blue Devils have a chance to put the criticism to rest once and for all. On Saturday, they will have a chance to settle the West Virginia debate first hand. If they advance past the Mountaineers, they will have an opportunity to win the title and leave no room for criticism of any kind.
No matter the outcome of the Final Four, no one can deny that the Blue Devils have consistently answered the criticisms levied against them all season long. They are the only No. 1 seed to make the Final Four, and one of only two No. 1 seeds to make the Elite Eight.
If Duke gets soundly beaten by West Virginia, let the criticism commence.
But for now, it's time to stop criticizing Duke and start giving the Devils their due.
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