Before Kyrie Irving was sidelined with a toe injury in early December, the Duke Blue Devils looked to be head and shoulders better than every team in the nation. The team was considered a lock for the Final Four, the clear favorite to win another national championship, and a candidate for an undefeated conference season considering the relative weakness of the ACC.
The Florida State Seminoles silenced any further talk of an undefeated season for the Blue Devils in a 66-61 win in Tallahassee on Wednesday night.
While Duke fans shouldn't give up hope for a serious title run, Wednesday night's performance highlighted some serious issues the Blue Devils need to address.
For starters, post play is starting to look like a major problem for Duke on both sides of the court.
Offensively, the Blue Devils are a perimeter-oriented team—that's been the case since Day 1 of this season and it isn't going to change.
Still, Mason Plumlee seemed to be developing into a steady contributor (and occasional star) prior to Irving's injury. The sophomore big man was averaging close to a double-double when Irving went down, scoring in double figures in four of Duke's first eight games. In the eight games since Irving's injury, Plumlee has only scored in double figures once (against UAB). He hasn't scored more than four points in the other seven games.
Neither Miles Plumlee nor Ryan Kelly has proven to be the answer in the paint for the Blue Devils, either. Unless someone inside steps up for Duke the way Brian Zoubek did last year, Wednesday night's loss won't be an isolated occurrence.
Unfortunately, Duke's interior problems haven't been confined to the offensive side of the court.
The Blue Devils' interior defense has proven to be quite vulnerable. Duke's post players are frequently late helping against penetration (which is bound to happen with how Duke overplays the perimeter), and opposing teams are getting far too many high-percentage shots close to the basket.
The frequent defensive breakdowns around the basket have allowed talented big men to have career nights against the Blue Devils. Miami's Reggie Johnson had 22 points in Duke's ACC opener, and Maryland big man Jordan Williams put up 23 in Durham last Sunday.
Last season, both Zoubek and Lance Thomas played solid defense consistently for Duke. If the Plumlees don't figure things out before March, Duke could be in trouble against top teams with dominant big men like Ohio State and Kansas.
Post play isn't Duke's only concern, however—their transition game is beginning to disappear as well.
Against Florida State, Duke didn't do anything in transition. When Irving was running Duke's offense, the Blue Devils were as effective in transition as any team in the nation.
Nolan Smith has done a great job taking over the point in Irving's absence, but he's played 40 minutes in every one of Duke's ACC games. There's no way he can play at the pace the Blue Devils displayed with Irving for 40 minutes a game.
The dissipation of the Blue Devils' transition game affects more than just Smith. The Plumlee brothers aren't true back-to-the-basket post players, but they excel in the running game. When Duke had Irving, its bigs had the advantage of being able to outrun the opposing teams' post players and get easy buckets in transition. That advantage no longer exists with Duke's half court-oriented offense.
Duke won't be the top-ranked team in the nation when the new polls come out next week, but they are still among a small group of teams that look like potential champions.
That said, Florida State's win signifies that Duke is not the clear favorite any longer. There are serious issues for Mike Krzyzewski to work out.
One of two things has to happen for Duke to become the unquestionable favorite it was earlier in the season—either Irving has to come back or one of Duke's post players has to emerge as a legitimate scorer and defender in the paint.
Ironically, both could happen if Irving returns.