DURHAM — Given the opponent and the circumstances, the comparisons between Dukes win against No. 4 Ohio State on Wednesday and its devastating loss to the Buckeyes last year were inevitable. They were also flawed.
These Blue Devils have very little in common with the team that went out of the NCAA tournament at the first opportunity against Lehigh. They have a lot more in common with the team that hung on to beat Butler three years ago and emerged as national champions.
Seven games into the season, the No. 2 Blue Devils have proven that much. They have played a schedule that resembles nothing so much as an NCAA tournament run, facing three of last years Final Four teams in a two-week span, and they have emerged unscathed.
Wednesdays win was as impressive as any of them: Outhustled, outmuscled and outtussled at the half, the Blue Devils regrouped defensively, recommitted themselves to rebounding and recaptured their shooting touch. Oh, and Mason Plumlee took what looked like an errant Quinn Cook lob and annihilated the ball with a one-handed slam from far, far above the rim.
The strength of the performance was all the more notable given the 22-point drubbing in Columbus last year.
We came out last year strong, really, until this game, Plumlee said. There arent any parallels between this year and last year. This is a new team. Were really solid at every position. Two different teams. I think weve proven that were going to be good, that were going to fight, that winnings the priority in everybodys game.
That was on display Wednesday, the kind of gritty defense and explosive offense that invites comparisons not to last season but to the last really good Duke team, the 2010 national champions (with the caveat that no one will ever know how 2011 would have turned out had Kyrie Irving stayed healthy).
Theres a strong point guard who does a good job taking care of the ball in Cook, who might not be quite the leader Jon Scheyer was yet but is a better defender.
Theres a post scorer in Plumlee, whos far better in that role than Brian Zoubek was in 2010 and adds the rebounding his brother Miles delivered that year. Ryan Kelly fulfills the Kyle Singler role of inside-out scorer, even if Singler was more of an outside-in player.
There are scoring threats on the wings in Seth Curry and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, a different look than Nolan Smith and Singler but an effective one. (Sulaimons game is frighteningly similar to Smiths, and as a freshman while it took Smith a few years to grow into the role.)
Most important, theres strong veteran leadership, and the hugs exchanged between rookies and veterans alike during the waning moments of Wednesdays win suggested the closeness and chemistry that was lacking last season has returned.
Ive liked my group, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. You just dont know if they have the confidence, the togetherness, the endurance to go through a stretch like this. Itll be hard to find anybody thats been through a stretch like this, and theyve gotten better. I knew my team was together, and through accomplishment theyve gotten more together.
Its not a perfect comparison for one thing, theres no one quite like Singler on this team, nor was there anyone quite like Plumlee on that one nor should it be. That team was a special one, period. This team is a special one, so far. As Plumlee put it, We cant be satisfied seven games into the season. But he also acknowledged, We have a chance to be really good.
Based on the early returns, this has the potential to be a classic Duke team, in all the ways last years team wasnt: experienced, sound defensively, responsible with the ball, very short on depth but with a comfortable seven-man rotation.
Ohio State coach Thad Matta thought Kelly was going to be his teams toughest matchup and hoped to exploit Dukes perimeter defense by creating opportunities for its guards.
Coming into the game we felt like if Duke had a weakness, which we couldnt find many, it was going to be our guards were going to have to make plays off ball screens, Matta said.
Kelly had 15 points and made three 3-pointers, including the go-ahead basket, in what Krzyzewski called his best game of the season. Buckeyes guards Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott and Lenzelle Smith Jr. were a combined 8-for-35 from the floor.
The No. 4 team in the country, like the No. 2 team and the No. 3 team, couldnt find a terminal flaw in the Blue Devils. Its a young season, but at the moment, theyre flawless.
DeCock: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @LukeDeCock, (919) 829-8947