Duke Basketball: Will the 2011 Blue Devils Sink or Swim Come Tourney Time?

Matthew CohenContributor IJanuary 11, 2011

DURHAM, NC - DECEMBER 01:  Kyrie Irving #1 of the Duke Blue Devils watches on during their game against the Michigan State Spartans at Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 1, 2010 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

With conference play getting into full swing, the college basketball season is starting to take shape. Contenders are continually emerging from pretenders; Dreams of national exposure and prominence are being built and broken every week.

Through all this, the Duke University Blue Devils have stayed constant in their ways all season—dominant. Standing at 15-0, the Blue Devils have maintained a consensus No. 1 ranking all season. Propelled by their outstanding seniors, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, along with legendary head coach Mike Krzyzewski, Duke is looking like an early favorite for a deep run into the NCAA Tournament.

In 2010, Duke reached the pinnacle of the college basketball world with a 61-59 victory over the Cinderella Butler University Bulldogs in the Nation Championship game. The fourth national title for Coach K may have been one of his most unexpected.

But for this unexpected run to the championship, there are many more Top Ten rankings which led to disappointing finishes in the big dance, especially in the last decade.

In 2008-09, the Blue Devils entered the NCAA Tournament with a 25-6 record and a No. 6 national ranking. After victories in the first two rounds of the Tournament, including a five point win over Texas, the Devils got blown out by Villanova; ending their season in the sweet sixteen.

The biggest disappointment of the decade came in 2005-06 when the most prolific three-point shooter in NCAA history, JJ Redick was a senior. Along with Sheldon Williams, DeMarcus Nelson and Josh McRoberts, Duke finished the season with only three losses and entered the tournament coming off a decisive ACC Tournament championship.

Ranked as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, Duke rolled through the first and second rounds into the Sweet Sixteen. However, the Blue Devils ran into a hot LSU team featuring Tyrus Thomas and Glenn Davis. LSU prevailed in a tight game, coming away with a 62-54 victory and a birth into the elite eight.

So, what does this mean for the latest edition of the team that calls Cameron Indoor Stadium home? 

To start, it means that no team is a shoo-in for a National Championship, no matter how dominant they may seem in the regular season. With the impeccable communication abilities due to the internet and other technologies, along with more emphasis on advanced scouting, recruiting has run with peak efficiency. No longer do you see great players slipping through the hands of Division I teams down to the Division II or III ranks.

Furthermore, with only 12-man rosters, it takes special athletes to bust through into the Division I ranks, whether they play for Duke or Boise State.

Another major impact on the Blue Devils chances to make a championship run is the loss of freshman-phenom point guard Kyrie Irving. Irving, who has missed the last seven games to a toe injury and is unlikely to return this season, averaged 17.38 points per game in the first eight games of the season and is still the team's fourth leading scorer despite his absence.

Irving did even more than contribute points though; he also averaged 3.75 rebounds, 5.13 assists and 1.5 steals per game. His ability to drive the lane and condense the defense also led to more open threes and inside dump-offs to the bigs inside for easy scores.

Since the loss of Irving, Mason Plumlee has looked lost. Plumlee has seen his scoring average drop from 9.25 points per game with Irving in the lineup to 3.86 points without him.

His play has been so lackluster that many of his minutes have been taken by fellow sophomore Ryan Kelly and his brother, Junior Miles Plumlee.

Though this paints a slightly unstable picture for the Blue Devils, they still have many things going for them.

First, the play of their seniors has been off the charts since the loss of Kyrie Irving and over the entire season in general. Kyle Singler has gotten back to his prolific scoring ways, averaging 17.9 points and 6.1 rebounds per game. Fellow senior, Nolan Smith, has emerged as a legitimate player of the year candidate this season. Smith has scored 19.5 points per game and added five rebounds and 5.7 assists to his gaudy numbers.

Another key to the Devils success in 2011 is their depth in the backcourt. With arguably the deepest and most talented backcourt in the NCAA, Duke will need Nolan Smith to keep rolling and for Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry to step up. If this happens, Duke will have little trouble scoring points in bunches. This, combined with solid team defense, will allow the Blue Devils to continue their dominant ways throughout the 2011 season.

With plenty of basketball left to play before the NCAA Tournament, there is certainly room for growth and for teams to emerge as threats to cut the nets come April. Will it be the Duke Blue Devils who will do so? I guess we will just have to sit back and enjoy the ride to find out.