11-0 and No. 1, how far can Duke go?

lkeeley@newsobserver.comDecember 23, 2012 

— Nearly one-third of the way through Duke’s regular season, there is no doubt about how coach Mike Krzyzewski feels about his undefeated team.

“Our guys have handled things just great,” he said after Duke beat Elon Thursday. “I am proud of them, I love them.”

The polls, too, love the Blue Devils, who are a near-unanimous No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches and AP polls. To predict Duke would be 11-0 would have been difficult, as the early schedule held games against then-No. 3 Kentucky and No. 4 Ohio State and a Battle 4 Atlantis championship game against No. 2 Louisville. Even Krzyzewski said after Duke beat Temple on Dec. 8 that the team couldn’t expect to be undefeated at that point, but, so far Duke has aced every test thrown its way.

There were questions surrounding this team before the season began, and the News & Observer posed the following three questions on opening night. The Blue Devils have answered each while introducing another regarding their ceiling.

Who emerges as a consistent, go-to scorer after the loss of Austin Rivers?

There has not been one instance in which Duke wished it still had its NBA lottery pick freshman from last season. For the first time in recent memory, the Blue Devils’ go-to scorer isn’t on the perimeter. Instead, it’s Mason Plumlee down low. The senior, who turned down his opportunity to go pro, returned to Duke to lead the team, and has done just that. Plumlee averages 19.3 points and 11.5 rebounds, both of which lead the team. He is the second leading scorer in the ACC (behind Virginia Tech’s Erick Green) and leads the league in rebounds.

Most important, he has embraced the leadership role in a way no player did last season.

“I love it,” Plumlee said of being a leader. “I really do.”

Duke has been far from a one-man show. All five starters – Plumlee, Ryan Kelly, Seth Curry, Rasheed Sulaimon and Quinn Cook – average double figures in scoring, and Cook is tied for the ACC lead with 6.0 assists per game. The last time Duke had five starters finish the season averaging double figures was 2003-04. That year, J.J. Redick, Luol Deng, Daniel Ewing, Shelden Williams and Chris Duhon led Duke to the Final Four.

Does this team set an early tone and get back to typical Duke defense?

Quite simply, yes. The Blue Devils’ biggest problem last year was that they were one of the worst defensive teams of the Krzyzewski era. This year, they are much better in several areas.

One problem last year was that Duke didn’t have the perimeter defense to generate turnovers. This season, the Blue Devils have forced an average of 15.4 turnovers per game, a significant improvement from last season (12.6). Duke ranks 32nd out of 347 Division-I teams in defensive efficiency, 31st in points allowed per possession (0.88) and 11th in opponent assists to turnover ratio (0.568).

“We’ve played really hard on the defensive end,” Krzyzewski said. “I like that about our team.”

After Duke forced Elon to record more turnovers (17) than assists (10), Krzyzewski said he thought this team is one of the least assisted-upon teams he’s had. Nationally, Duke ranks sixth in that category, yielding just 8.7 assists per game.

“We don’t give up that many easy shots,” he said. “That’s why we’re not assisted a lot.”

What can we expect from freshmen Amile Jefferson and Rasheed Sulaimon?

Sulaimon entered the starting lineup when Curry was injured during the preseason, and the freshman stayed when Curry returned. Sulaimon is Duke’s third-leading scorer (12.7), and he has scored in double figures in nine of Duke’s 11 games. He played well in the Blue Devils’ biggest games, too, most notably when he scored 17 second-half points as Duke rallied to beat Ohio State on Nov. 28.

Sulaimon has been a defensive force as well. The thought last year was that Duke lacked a wing with the size and length necessary to defend opponents’ bigger perimeter guards. And while Duke has two 6-foot-8 players on the bench (Jefferson and Alex Murphy), the 6-foot-4 Sulaimon has held his own.

When asked how he is able to guard bigger players, Sulaimon first praised the help defense of Plumlee, Kelly and Josh Hairston, who can come out of the post to block shots. Beyond that, Sulaimon said he works hard before his man gets the ball.

“If they don’t have the ball, they can’t score,” Sulaimon said. “Really, just working hard off the ball, and when they do get the ball, really just being disciplined, staying strong, keeping my base and just try to fight them every possession.

“I just hate it when my man scores. I take a lot of pride in my defense. I’ll scrap, I’ll do whatever it takes to keep that man from his points.”

Jefferson, Duke’s other true freshmen, has provided a spark off the bench. He averages 3.5 points and 1.9 rebounds in 9.7 minutes, and that’s all Duke needs from him, with Plumlee and Kelly getting most of the minutes in the post by design.

All of which has led to a new question ...

When will the Blue Devils meet their match?

If Duke can beat three top-five opponents and another (Minnesota) currently ranked in the top 15, then who can beat Duke?

The Blue Devils don’t face another team currently in the top 20 in the regular season, but somebody will beat them, according to Krzyzewski.

“This season will not be a perfect one,” he said after the Elon game, echoing what he said after the Temple win when he described Duke as beatable.

Since the 1997-98 season, 13 of the Blue Devils’ 14 regular-season losses when they’ve been ranked No. 1 have come on the road. And Duke will face two of its toughest ACC road games in January, at N.C. State (Jan. 12) and at Miami (Jan. 23). The Wolfpack will be Duke’s first conference test, and home games against Wake Forest and Clemson might not be the ideal warm-ups for the team in the best position to challenge Duke for the ACC title.

“You can look into the future and take your guess,” Ryan Kelly said of those trying to predict how Duke will finish. “We’re confident in what we’ve done and what we believe we can become.”

Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley

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