Duke Now: 12 thoughts on Duke's basketball season thus far

lkeeley@newsobserver.comDecember 13, 2012 

— In honor of the day (it's 12-12-12 for those who, somehow, haven't had this pointed out to them at least 12 times today), here are a dozen thoughts on No. 2 Duke (9-0) so far this year:

1. Anyone that tells you they predicted Duke would be 9-0 at this point of the season is either a) lacking objectivity or b) not being truthful. Not even Mike Krzyzewski could have predicted this strong of start.

“If you looked at our schedule, I don’t think you could have expected to be 9-0 at this time,” he said after the win against Temple.

In fact, by being 9-0, Duke has done something no team in NCAA history has done before: beat three top-5 teams before the end of December. As a review, Duke beat then-No. 3 Kentucky 75-68 in Atlanta in the second game of the year, then-No. 2 Louisville 76-71 in the Battle 4 Atlantis final and then No.-4 Ohio State 73-68 in the ACC/Big 10 challenge.

2. While Kentucky has fallen out of the polls, both the Cardinals and the Buckeyes remain in the top 10. Minnesota, another Duke victim in the Bahamas, is now No. 13 with an 11-1 record. I was super impressed with the Gophers when I saw them. Rodney Williams (who was held in check by Ryan Kelly) is as athletic a player as you will find in college basketball.

3. One final point on Duke’s ridiculously strong schedule (ranked No. 2 in the country): while the Blue Devils are 3-0 against top-5 teams, the rest of the country is 0-36. Not surprisingly, Duke current has the best RPI in the country and is a projected No. 1 seed in Joe Lunardi’s early bracketology.

P.S.—Mississippi Valley State has the No. 1 spot in the strength of schedule rankings. The Delta Devils are 0-6.

4. I touched on this earlier, but, on paper, Rasheed Sulaimon has posted similar numbers to Austin Rivers through this point in the season. Sulaimon has taken 93 shots thus far (second most on the team), just 10 fewer than Rivers after nine games last year. Rivers averaged more points (15.6 to 12.3), but Sulaimon is in the same ballpark.

The main difference for Duke is that Sulaimon has three seniors in Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry that carry the team whereas Rivers was more or less a one-man show (and there’s plenty of fault to be shared for that). Maturity has done wonders for this Duke team.

5. Mason Plumlee is one of the most improved scorers in the ACC, averaging 8.1 more points per game this year than he did last season. He’s the second leading scorer in the conference with an average of 19.2 points per game, and he leads the league in rebounding with an average of 11.3 boards per contest.

6. It’s hard to get players and coaches to answer the question of what has been the biggest surprise thus far because they don’t want to imply that they had doubts or low expectations. But, unquestionably the most pleasant surprise to this point has been the play of Quinn Cook. Even after he was named the starter in the preseason, there were doubts as to whether Cook could tone down his flashiness to run the team effectively. And in the early going, he couldn’t, and he was benched. Ever since a breakout game against Kentucky, though, he has been solid. Cook is averaging 5.7 assists per game and boasts a 1.96:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

After the Temple game, Krzyzewski was going through an overall assessment of his team. One of the first complements went to Cook

“The kid who has really played great for us is Quinn,” he said.

7. Tyler Thornton has been an effective ball handler as well. His assist-to-turnover ratio is 1.69:1 and has 12 assists against just three turnovers in Duke’s last three games. As a team, Duke ranks first in the ACC with a 1.40:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Cook, of course, is more adept at pushing the pace of the offense than the defensive-minded Thornton.

8. While chemistry is surely a factor, the No. 1 reason Duke is better this year is because the team plays better defense, especially on the perimeter.

Duke has forced its opponent to turn the ball over at least 10 times in all but one game this season (Ohio State is the exception). Last year, Duke ranked No. 251 in opponent turnover rate with an average of 12.6 per game. So far this season, the Blue Devils are forcing an average of 14.0 turnovers per game (and remember, this is against top-flight competition), good for 185th in the nation.

9. For those that like round numbers and milestones, there are that Duke should reach before the end of the year. The Blue Devils have won 98 straight nonconference games in Cameron, a streak that dates back to 200. Duke will play back-to-back home contests against Cornell and Elon Dec. 19 and 20.

Additionally, Duke has been ranked in the AP top 10 for 98 straight weeks, an ACC record (that dates back to Nov. 26, 2007). If the Blue Devils take care of business and extend the home nonconference winning streak, the rankings streak should reach No. 100 as well.

UCLA owns the longest streak of top 10 rankings, achieving that feat a record 155 weeks in a row.

10. I think it’s interesting Michael Hunt of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel has Duke ranked No. 5 on his AP ballot (behind Indiana, Florida, Michigan and Syracuse). He is the only voter in the country that has Florida that high.

Two other voters have the Blue Devils ranked at No. 3—Fletcher Mackel (WDSU-TV, New Orleans) and Cormac Gordon (Staten Island Advance), opting instead for Michigan. Everyone else has Duke No. 1 or No. 2

11. The one clear weakness for Duke has been defensive rebounding. The Blue Devils are giving up 14.1 offensive rebounds per game. The person in the best position to improve this area of the game is Ryan Kelly, who, as the 4, plays closer to the basket on defense than a guard would (the theory being that he is guarding another tall player who likely takes close-range shots).

There’s reason to expect improvement: Kelly posted a season-high 10 rebounds against Temple as he recorded the third double-double of his career.

12. Krzyzewski said Saturday, “We’re a very beatable team. We just haven’t been beaten yet.” When will that first loss come? Impossible to say (obviously), but two candidates would be Jan. 12 at N.C. State and Jan. 23 at Miami. Both teams have ample size and rebounding abilities inside.

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