5 Reasons Why Duke Blue Devils Are National Championship Contenders

Jason HeimCorrespondent INovember 23, 2011

5 Reasons Why Duke Blue Devils Are National Championship Contenders

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    The Duke Blue Devils are off and running to begin the season, which is no shock to anyone who follows college basketball.

    For the fifth consecutive season, Mike Krzyzewski's group has started at least 6-0, and this year's edition is looking to capture the Maui Invitational in tonight's showdown with No. 14 Kansas to move its mark to 7-0.

    Duke's furious preseason starts all blend together at this point, with only their endings separating them in memory. The Devils have had their fair share of maddeningly premature March exits, a few heartrending losses in the middle of the Big Dance and still fewer forays into Final Four territory. 

    Because Duke is so good in the early going, these are the only ways to differentiate one Duke campaign from all the rest. 

    This year's team is considered among the nation's best, opening in the polls at sixth, but earns much less respect than its immediate ancestors, which were guided by Duke legends Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer. New, young faces have arrived, and leadership has been passed to players named Plumlee, Dawkins, Kelly and Curry. 

    Even the most loyal of Duke fans can't quell their own doubts about this team's chances in 2011-2012.

    Every team is just starting to get comfortable and develop chemistry at this point. However, we've seen enough of the Blue Devils (thank you, ESPN) to vaguely ascertain what this team is and how far it can go.

    Based on what I've seen, that might be a long way.

    Here are five reasons why Duke is, contrary to popular belief, a national championship contender in 2011-12.

Stout Early Season Schedule

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    Duke's early season success is buttressed by the fact that Mike Krzyzewski firmly believes in playing strong competition early on. It is for this reason why Duke is always near the top of the RPI and strength of schedule rankings come early March.

    This year's non-conference slate includes giant-killer Belmont (77-76 win), Michigan State (74-69 win), Tennessee (77-67 win), No. 15 Michigan (82-75 win), No. 14 Kansas tonight, No. 3 Ohio State next week in Columbus, Washington and St. John's. 

    Only Tom Izzo dares put his Michigan State Spartans through such a torturous preseason as consistently as Coach K does.

    Duke's showdown with Kansas comes in the Final of the Maui Invitational, which Duke has attended four times previously: 1992, 1997, 2001 and 2007. Each time, Duke has walked away with the championship, racking up a 14-0 record (including two games this week) at the Lahaina Civic Center that is rather remarkable.

    If Duke takes down Kansas on Thursday night, it will have turned away Tennessee, Michigan and Kansas on consecutive nights, and will have another tournament trophy to check into baggage on the flight back to Durham.

    Put simply, the combination of Duke and the Maui Invitational means two things: that Coach K and his staff will successfully rock snazzy team polos all week, and that every competitor in the field will be going home a loser. 

    Looking forward, what a grueling non-con schedule accomplishes is a tough, battle-tested team that is more ready for the journey through the late-season than it would be with an otherwise easy schedule.

    Coach K would rather challenge his team, risk a few losses and teach the biggest lessons early on than have to correct bad habits and raise the intensity level suddenly at some point in the middle of the year. 

Legitimate Post Presence

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    For several years in the early 2000s, Duke was criticized and discounted for never having a low post threat to score on one end and protect the rim on the other. Coach K's teams were always perimeter-oriented, usually featuring lithe and nimble big men with an inclination to play on the three-point line and an aversion to physicality.

    Since his 2009-10 national champion roster, Krzyzewski has thrown the balance in the opposite direction. That team featured the surprisingly-effective Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas as paint enforcers, giving Duke just enough beef down low to emerge from the Big Dance victorious. 

    In the two seasons since, the brothers Plumlee, senior Miles and junior Mason, have developed into legitimate shot-blockers, rebounders and general bullies down low, while the guard play has slowly declined since the J.J. Redick/Gerald Henderson/Jon Scheyer days.

    Krzyzewski's guards, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins, are still very dangerous on the perimeter, but do not command opposing coaches to game plan to stop them as their predecessors did.

    In the NCAA tournament, you need an impact guard and solid, if unspectacular, post play to win the whole thing. That's the formula that wins out year in and year out. 

    Duke's big men were the question marks for so long, but no longer with the Plumlees and Ryan Kelly holding court. Now, it's up to top recruit and phenom Austin Rivers to complete the equation and unlock elite status for this year's Duke team. 

The Greatest Winner in College Basketball History

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    Earlier this month at Madison Square Garden, Duke's coach of 31 seasons, the iconic Mike Krzyzewski, won his 903rd game as a Division I coach, surpassing his former coach, Bob Knight, for the all-time wins record. 

    We could marvel at the specifics of Coach K's resume all day, but the most significant are a 906-284 record, four national championships, 11 Final Fours and an Olympic gold medal. Truly, truly a remarkable and durable man, the likes of whom the coaching ranks have never seen.

    For Coach K and all his success, it's got to be difficult to treasure his teams for their unique character at this point. For him, the 2011-12 team will just another Blue Devil group that finished in the top 10, won 30 games and earned one of the top eight seeds in the Big Dance. 

    For the players, though, this year will stand out in memory for the rest of their lives, which is why they will make the utmost of this season and the opportunity to play for K. 

    Combine that fact with the steady level of care and coaching acumen of Coach K, and you've got a team that is better equipped to deal with the pressures and rigors of the NCAA tournament than most others just by virtue of its coach's presence.

    Having this guy in their corner is a tangible and intangible advantage for so many reasons, making this team a contender, even if it's not the most talented or complete.

Austin Rivers' Confidence and Maturity

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    Don't get me wrong: most accounts have freshman star Austin Rivers as too emotional on the court, with a penchant for taunting enough to rub just about everyone the wrong way.

    I realize all that, but this guy has stepped in to the starting two-guard position and become Duke's go-to guy almost immediately.

    Rivers is averaging over 15 points per game after six games, and has periodically dazzled with his long crossover and windy drives to the hoop. 

    In Duke's win over Michigan on Wednesday, Rivers came up big, leading his team with 20 points against just two turnovers in 36 minutes, and looking far beyond his 18 years of age. 

    These instances are sure to increase as Rivers grows as a player on the court, but his personal maturity and mentality must follow if he is to realize his full potential while at Duke.

    His palpable confidence with the ball is what elevates him above every other freshmen in the nation, and will propel him and his teammates to unexpected heights if tempered with discretion, judgment and composure. 

    Austin Rivers is immensely skilled already, but his poise and eagerness to take big shots and lead Duke is what makes him very, very rare in the college ranks. With those qualities come a few potential weaknesses, but overall, the benefits of Rivers far outweigh the drawbacks.

    Coach K and Duke fans are delighted to have Rivers, even if only for a Kyrie Irving-esque stopover in Durham.

Championship Experience

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    Excepting some of the holdovers from Connecticut's title team of last year, no team on the current landscape has more meaningful tournament experience than Duke does.

    Mason and Miles Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Andre Dawkins all remember what it feels like to navigate the tournament and know what it takes to ascend to the mountaintop as champion. All four start and contribute as core players on this year's team, along with junior Seth Curry, who watched that 2010 national championship from the bench while sitting out his transfer year from Liberty.

    No one can claim the extent of postseason experience that Duke can, which isn't all-encompassing, but certainly gives a team something to lean on when entering the postseason pressure-cooker. Leaning on experience yields poise, which is crucial when the heat is on.

    Duke might not be the best team in the nation, and could very well could fall short of a Final Four berth, but failure won't ensue because they weren't prepared for the moment.