After jumping out to a torrid 15-0 start this season, the Duke Blue Devils have lost two out of their last seven games to sub-par opponents. The loss at Florida State was understandable, as Duke has never fared well in Tallahassee and no road conference game is ever easy.
However, the loss to St. John's on Saturday at Duke's home away from home, Madison Square Garden, really exposed Duke's weaknesses and the fact that they're not the unbeatable team that everyone wants to have every college basketball season.
There's plenty of time for Duke to shape up with half the conference schedule remaining before the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament in five weeks.
If Duke wants to grab the coveted No. 1 seed in the East region for the Big Dance, it must realize these 10 things over the next few weeks to get back to the way they played in November and December.
Plumlee had his fourth double-double of the season against Maryland.
The knock on Duke, seemingly since Elton Brand left after the 1999 run to the Final Four, is that they can't hang with good big men inside. By and large, Coach K recruits guards and forwards who can run and shoot, but do not play down low.
Plumlee, while thin and lanky, fills the "big man" role better than most of his predecessors. He has the height at 6'10" to be a traditional center, but lacks the back-to-the-basket skills and strength to really be considered one.
However, his 8.7 rebounds per game leads Duke and if they have any prayer of stopping dominant bigs like Ohio State's Jared Sullinger and Kansas' Morris twins, Plumlee is going to have to play a big part.
Plumlee has fouled out three times this season and has committed four fouls in each of the last two games. In Duke's two losses, Plumlee has had at least four fouls and his scoring has been nonexistent.
Duke is largely dependent on how well they are shooting from the perimeter, but finally having a solid big man to turn to when shots aren't falling is a huge plus for them...if he can stay on the floor.
Singler, right, does a good job handling the ball, giving away just 1.7 turnovers a game.
As a team, Duke has done a fairly good job of valuing possession of the ball. Four times they have committed more than 15 turnovers this season, and two of those instances came in their only losses.
It is clear that a key to the fast-paced Blue Devil perimeter attack is to possess the ball. However, the fast pace dictates that turnovers are more likely to occur, so there repeats a cycle.
The more shots that Duke gets up, the better odds that they will win and to get shots, you have to have the ball.
Smith and Singler have shouldered a huge scoring burden in Duke's losses.
Simply put, the rest of the team has not shown up in the two losses. Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler have accounted for an astounding 65.4 percent of Duke's 139 points in its two losses.
Against St. John's, the seven other players who entered the game combined for nine field goals made and only 26 points, while managing just seven baskets and 22 points against Florida State.
Duke needs more out of its secondary players, because 29.6 percent from the field for players not named Singler or Smith is going to kill them every time in a close game against a tough team.
The sophomore Dawkins stretches the floor with his shooting to open up the drive for Smith and Seth Curry.
Andre Dawkins has been an invaluable contributor off the bench for the Devils, mostly with his deadly outside shooting. For the season, he's shooting nearly 44 percent from beyond the arc after scoring on 38 percent last year.
Of course, maintaining that gaudy standard for long-range shooting is not easy and Dawkins has fallen off in the last few weeks. Starting with the Florida State loss seven games ago, Dawkins has connected on only nine of his last 35 three-pointers, which amounts to 25.7 percent. To date before the FSU game, Dawkins was sitting at 37-70, a blistering 52.8 percent.
His recent slump is just his reversion back to the norm after an abnormal start to the season, but it's clear that Duke becomes a lot tougher to beat when its third best scorer comes off the bench and hits half of his three-pointers.
How do you game plan against that?
Nolan Smith is Duke's most reliable scorer.
The Blue Devils are fourth in the NCAA in points per game with 85.0. In their losses, they had the pace of the game dictated to them, netting paltry totals of 61 and 78. To win, Duke has to score their points, which they'd rather do in the open court than in the half court.
For a team that shoots a better three-point percentage (39.2) than any team in Division I that has attempted as many threes (500), there is a great advantage to running the floor, spreading it with player movement and finding open looks for guys like Dawkins and Seth Curry.
Kelly (behind) and Curry get enough minutes to make valuable contributions. Duke will be very hard to beat if they find consistency.
Since the Florida State loss, Ryan Kelly, who averages 6.7 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, has had three really good games:
11 points and eight rebounds
20 points and six rebounds
14 points, four rebounds and four blocks
Duke's outcome in those games? A 14-point road win, a 24-point road win and a 16-point home win. Is there a correlation between Kelly's strongest games of the year and Duke's most identifiable wins during their period of struggles?
Maybe not, but Kelly's strong onset has the potential to really help Duke separate itself from the rest of the pack in college basketball, because it means that the team is getting big numbers from its secondary players.
All I know is that Kelly's emergence is better timed right now than it would have been in November or December.
Seth Curry, the younger brother of Golden State Warriors star Stephen Curry, has had a marginal impact in his first season after transferring to Duke. Curry is essentially the eighth or ninth man in Mike Krzyzewski's rotation.
He hasn't had a ton of playing time to show what he can do, though in the last few games he's found ways to contribute, even erupting for a season high 20 points against Boston College last week.
The results have been unimpressive so far, but if Curry, like Kelly, can find a groove down the stretch and gain confidence, Duke could be nine or ten legitimate players deep come March Madness.
Smith has taken up a huge scoring burden and done well, but the team might be better off with more balance.
Smith has been the Blue Devils' best player all season long and is a strong candidate for Player of the Year. Intangibly, he makes everyone on the court better, empowers and engenders confidence in younger teammates and owns the huddle at all times.
Tangibly, he's having a hallmark year with 21 points, 4.8 rebounds, 5.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game this season. He's been consistent, scoring at least 16 points in all but two games, while shooting a career high 48 percent, fantastic for a guard, in a ton of minutes (33.4 per game).
So what can you possibly nitpick about Smith's game, you ask? He's started to take too many shots.
In the first 13 games of the season, Smith took between seven and 16 shots per game, which is a pretty consistent window. In those games, Smith shot a blistering 50.6 percent from the field on 154 attempts. That percentage includes Smith's 0-for-8 game against Bradley on December 8.
Even before the two losses, Duke suddenly started relying on Smith a little too much. The shift occurred on January 5, when the probable lottery pick took a season high 22 shots. Since that game, he hasn't taken less than 16 shots per game and is shooting just 42.4 percent. In those nine games, Smith has taken 18 more shots combined than he did in the first 13 games, with a significant decrease in converted shots.
Inconsequentially, Duke lost two of those games as it stood by content with Smith taking too many. Duke is at its best when the shots are being taken from different guys all over the court. They become easier to guard when Smith takes too many shots, and they lose their dangerous edge when the ball is taken away from the wide open shooters on the perimeter.
For Duke to be successful, Smith needs to be right around those 15 shots a game instead of his recent stretch of 19 per game.
Duke has mostly taken care of business in the games they should win.
Duke has done this well to this point, aside from the St. John's game. To stay atop the rankings and in contention for a No. 1 seed, the expected wins need to become actual wins.
Past Duke teams have been victimized by their tendency to lose bad games. It has served as a sign of a good, but not great, team that is ultimately too soft to win tough games.
This year, they've taken care of their business in conference, blowing out NC State, Wake Forest and Boston College in the last two weeks, with doormats NC State, Georgia Tech, Virginia and Miami still on the docket.
If they take care of their business in conference, they could conceivably end up the league slate at 15-1 with a truckload of momentum entering the middle of March, which is what every team hopes for at that time of year.
Carolina has a tough task winning at Cameron Indoor.
Things go well when the Blue Devils beat their fiercest rival. There hasn't been much success against the Heels lately, but the last two times that Duke has swept the regular season meetings with North Carolina, they've advanced to the Final Four.
Last year was the first time that they've gone 2-0 against Carolina in several seasons and they won the National Championship. The last time it happened before that was 2004, when they narrowly missed the National Championship game.
In the remaining years where they either split with or got swept by Carolina, the Blue Devils have not advanced past the Sweet 16 in the NCAAs.
While having absolutely no correlation with tournament success, it is obvious that dominion over their Tobacco Road rivals is usually a harbinger for good things in late March.
Duke meets North Carolina for the first time this season on Wednesday at Cameron Indoor, then a month later in Chapel Hill. Duke is among the nation's top teams and Carolina is improved, so look for the rivalry to renew the ferocity that it lacked last season.
Irving's puts Duke over the top in chances of winning another National Championship.
Remember watching Duke play in November and early December? They're still good now, but back then, they were unbeatable and the reason is freshman phenom Kyrie Irving.
Irving came in and commanded Coach Ks' team from the beginning, starting at point from day one. While inexperienced, Irving's athleticism and transcendent skills jumped off the TV screen at you when watching. He brings a level of athleticism and explosion that most Duke teams aren't known for.
Granted, they played a lot of cupcakes early in the schedule to warm up, but the Irving-led lineup never scored less than 79 points in a game. With him in the lineup, they simply had too many weapons to defend and game plan for. The "Can Duke go undefeated?" fodder ramped up after a few weeks when everyone realized how good Irving is. In a year where no one seems elite, many were eager to hand Duke their trophy in December.
Then the injury happened. In a rematch of the National Final with Butler on December 4, Irving sustained a toe injury that, when diagnosed, was not good for Duke's 2011 fortunes. Coach K said that he'd be out "a while," then "indefinitely" and possibly for the remainder of the season.
Duke suddenly became beatable as Nolan Smith shifted over to the point. Duke is 12-2 since the injury, but as other teams have rounded into form, Irving's uncertain availability has cast a huge cloud over Duke's chances of winning it all.
News broke today from ESPN.com's Andy Katz that Irving is progressing on his way back to game shape. His toe cast was removed after two months and an evaluation of the healing will be done in short order to determine his timetable to return. Duke fans have their fingers crossed that their surefire lottery pick will be back this season before he presumably enters the NBA Draft.
Duke certainly can win another title without Irving, but they'd be virtually unbeatable with him back in the lineup.
Coach K, Nolan Smith, and the rest of the Devils have as good a chance of any to leave Houston as champion.
Yes, Duke has weaknesses and isn't playing at full potential right now. Come to think about it, I wouldn't have it any other way: better to pinpoint your weaknesses now, improve and start to peak in a month instead of doing that all right now. At the end of the day, Duke's chances of repeating as National Champion are as good as, or better than, any team's.
Especially if Kyrie Irving rejoins the fold.