DURHAM — The journey has been more adventurous than predicted and a few unforeseen flaws have popped up, but Duke will enter the second half of the ACC regular-season schedule on course to rule the race.
Depending upon Virginia's outcome against Wake Forest on Saturday, the Blue Devils (18-4, 6-2 ACC) should have the outright midway lead or, at worst, end up tied with the upstart Cavaliers.
Due in large part to early Georgia Tech fouls, the Blue Devils, with an 86-67 win Thursday, had little difficulty offsetting a Jan. 9 loss to the Yellow Jackets.
That game first exposed some of Duke's deficiencies against quick, physical opponents - the same opening Georgetown's Greg Monroe exploited last weekend in a one-sided Hoyas win that sent the Blue Devils sliding to 10th in this week's Associated Press poll.
After teaming up for 28 points and 17 rebounds in Atlanta, Tech big men Gani Lawal and Derrick Favors literally were in no position to damage Duke in the rematch. At halftime, when the Devils led 45-33, Lawal and Favors had combined for five personal fouls but only three points in six minutes of playing time each.
The frustration set in immediately - two whistles against Lawal less than 35 seconds in - for the Yellow Jackets (16-6, 4-4) and coach Paul Hewitt. Senior reserve Zack Peacock did all he could, scoring 11 points to Duke's seven during the first four or so minutes.
But without Lawal on the court to help, the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Favors looked a lot more like an overwhelmed freshman making his first visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium than the top-10 NBA Draft pick many experts believe he'll become in June.
"But the fouls didn't have anything to do with it," Hewitt said. "The fouls were 27-25. We didn't hit free throws, that was bigger. You can't go 6-for-14 the way we did in the first half. ... We didn't pour as much effort into it as we should have, but give Duke a lot of credit. Those guys get everyone's best shot every night."
Meanwhile, Duke bigs Kyle Singler (30 points), Lance Thomas (11 rebounds), Mason Plumlee, Brian Zoubek and Ryan Kelly (four rebounds, three points in seven minutes) had one of their most productive joint performances, keying a 40-32 rebounding advantage and holding Peacock to the same 11 points he had early.
One blowout victory can't rock the room forever, of course. While Duke still doesn't have the look of a near lock for the Final Four, it's worth pointing out that Monroe and that Georgetown team backed up its win Saturday with a quick loss to South Florida.
Texas, probably the biggest and most physically imposing team out there, has dropped three of its past five, including one to Baylor in Austin. Even Kansas, which has to rate as the country's most talented and balanced group, got pushed around a little and scared a lot by 11-11 Colorado this week.
Although there are several teams with only one or two losses, there's not one with the ability to run the table with the same ease North Carolina did a year ago, meaning there's plenty of time and opportunity for Duke to become a prime player.
It's for certain the Devils have the personnel to develop a more potent offensive attack. They displayed that much Thursday, and it's a weapon Mike Krzyzewski has been able to use effectively before in February and March.
Defensively, Duke may have no option except to live with some limitations and attempt to hide that shortcoming when possible. But in what is almost certain to be an unpredictable NCAA Tournament field, history tells us the Devils cannot be discarded.
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