|Duke Basketball is back, and Kyle Singler (12), Gerald Henderson (15), Jon Scheyer (30), and Greg Paulus (3) all have been key to the Blue Devils' success.|
After watching the Duke Blue Devils (22-1, 10-0 in ACC) dispatch the Maryland Terrapins (16-9, 6-4 in ACC) for the second time this season, it’s time to give props where they're due.
Despite Maryland’s best efforts, including 25 points, eight rebounds, and seven assists from sophomore point guard Greivis Vasquez, Maryland was defeated by a superior Blue Devils squad, 77-65.
With only one loss and an unblemished record in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the perennial juggernaut Duke basketball program has officially returned to national title contention.
After two consecutive Sweet Sixteen exits followed by a first round collapse against Virginia Commonwealth in the past three NCAA Tournaments, critics argued that Duke basketball was on the decline.
Duke still recruited some of the most highly sought-after high school basketball players, but something was different about the chemistry of the teams in the past few years.
The players didn’t appear to have that quiet confidence and swagger typically associated with Duke. The mystique of Coach K and “Krzyzewskiville” was not as powerful as it once was. Virginia Tech and Florida State—teams which historically struggled against Duke—pranced out of Cameron Indoor Stadium with victories.
All was not well in Durham, North Carolina.
Part of the problem was the fact that there weren’t any star players like Grant Hill, Jason Williams, Trajan Langdon, or J.J. Redick who could single-handedly take over games. Another problem was the youth of the squad, caused by players leaving early for the NBA.
But worst of all, talented players like Greg Paulus and Josh McRoberts lacked the confidence and poise—generally trademark of a Coach Krzyzewski-coached program.
During this “drought,” the Blue Devils went 27-6 (11-5), 32-4 (14-2), and 22-11 (8-8) in the past three years—not exactly an indicator of a declining or rebuilding program—but for the exceedingly high expectations of the Duke basketball program, the team needed to reload.
Despite the Blue Devils’ apparent decline, Coach K has effectively developed a talented squad this year. Although McRoberts left for the NBA Draft early, his defection may have been a positive for the chemistry of the team. Coach K quickly replaced McRoberts by signing super recruit Kyle Singler, a 6’8” forward from Medford, Oregon.
In addition to Singler, who is averaging 13.8 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per game, Coach K added solid contributors including forward Taylor King and guard Nolan Smith.
Adding a few freshmen certainly helped, but the transformation of the team that got out-played by Virginia Commonwealth to a team that is one missed basket away from a perfect season is a result of the veterans maturing.
One player who has significantly matured this season is Greg Paulus.
|"...the perennial juggernaut Duke basketball program has officially returned to national title contention."|
Paulus averaged over three turnovers, but his mistakes weren’t too much of an issue. Paulus’s confidence seemed to slip away during his sophomore year as he played a much more significant role on the basketball team.
While Paulus averaged almost twice as many points and improved his three-point percentage to 45 percent, his assist-to-turnover ratio dropped significantly and his performance was insignificant as ever.
Paulus scored 23 points on 8-13 shooting against Florida State, but then followed it up with 12 points, four assists, and seven turnovers against Maryland. Because of his inconsistent play, he was benched for four games that year. While his stats haven’t significantly improved in his junior year, Greg Paulus has shown some veteran leadership—especially of late.
In the biggest game of the season against archrival UNC, Paulus had four steals and scored 18 points on 6-8 shooting from three-point range.
Along with Paulus, senior captain DeMarcus Nelson has elevated his status as an inside/outside scoring threat who is solid in the clutch. Swing man Gerald Henderson has provided another legitimate scoring threat to an already potent offense. Jon Scheyer has yet to show measurable improvement in the stat column, but he’s developed some versatility in his offensive game.
All in all, every position on the starting lineup is better than it was last year, and the cohesion of the group as a whole is reminiscent of past Duke basketball squads.
One cannot attribute Duke’s overwhelming success this year to a weak schedule. Prior to ACC play, the Blue Devils played Illinois, Marquette, Davidson, and Pitt (Duke’s only loss) on neutral courts in addition to Wisconsin and Michigan at home.
Already battle-tested from a solid non-conference schedule, Duke has cruised through ACC competition, winning by at least nine points in each of its ten games. Now, the Blue Devils will have to carry that momentum into the last seven games of the regular season and the ACC Tournament.
The maturation process has become evident in the win-loss column as this year the Blue Devils already have an inside shot at receiving a number one seed in the NCAA Tournament. This is especially important because of significant regional implications.
A number one seed for Duke would mean that the Blue Devils would likely play their first two rounds in Raleigh and the two following rounds in Charlotte. Meaning, Duke wouldn’t have to travel more than 150 miles and would remain in North Carolina until the Final Four. The geographical location of the host cities couldn’t be any better.
Concerns have been voiced about whether Duke can go far in the NCAA Tournament without a solid post game presence. Call it the old “Phoenix Suns' Syndrome.” But, so far Coach K’s coaching philosophy has worked, so it’s hard to imagine this team not going far in the tournament.
Duke basketball is a force to be reckoned with once again and will be a hard team to beat once March comes around. The motivation to knock Duke off the pedestal of ACC supremacy will be larger than ever, but this team is far more prepared than last year for the late-season onslaught.
Whether you love them or hate them, Duke basketball is back in the national spotlight—and they are hungry for a championship.
David Williams is a columnist for BleacherReport.com. His entire archive can be found here.