The Duke Blue Devils ended last season losers of three of their final four games including a stunning defeat in the NCAA tournament to Lehigh. Gone from that team were two NBA first round draft picks including all-ACC talent and attention-magnet, Austin Rivers.
Life is just fine in Durham for the Duke Blue Devils.
With Florida State the reigning champion and NC State returning its core that took the Wolfpack to the Sweet 16, how will life go on in Durham?
The answer after the first month of the season is: Very well, why thank you for asking! Coach K has addressed last season’s defensive woes putting the Blue Devils in the top 15 in defensive efficiency rebounding from the school’s lowest ranking in the decade last season - 70th. This hasn’t been done while feasting on a cupcake schedule either. Duke has defeated three top 10 teams, all that were in the 2012 Final Four and five likely NCAA tournament bound at-large teams in its first eight contests.
One thing is clear that while the “great” player has left in Rivers, a team has emerged in his shadow. Rivers was talented but selfish and the absence of team offense has been replaced with several capable players shining through. Last season, Duke was a dismal 294th nationally in assists per field goal made at 48.4 percent and so far this season, over 58 percent, 74th in the Nation with chemistry and youth only ticking up.
Five Duke players are averaging double digits in points, led by senior, Mason Plumlee. Mason is shooting better than 65 percent from the floor and has also contributed double digit rebounds. Another senior, one who was sorely missed at the end of last season has come back in a big way contributing in many areas for the Blue Devils is Ryan Kelly. Many consider Kelly the ‘X-Factor’ for the Duke, a 6’11 inside-out threat that extends the defense with his ability to make shots from behind the arc as well as putting his head in the rim on a follow-up dunk. Seth Curry, now a senior, perhaps finally comfortable in who he is as a player, has contributed 15 points per game and has made improvements in his field goal percentage and turnover percentage.
Electric sophomore Quinn Cook has emerged as a ball distributor something Rivers was never eager to be. Cook is dishing nearly six dimes per game to go along with his ten ppg. Coach K has to be incredibly happy with freshman, Rasheed Sulaimon. Sulaimon has the ACC trembling because he is getting better each game. He was the difference in the second half for the Blue Devils in their victory against Ohio State where he contributed all 17 of his points after the break.
Duke will have one more non-conference test in Temple before it hits conference play and the good news for Duke is that the league as a whole has struggled in the early going.
NC State, Florida State and North Carolina are all coming off disappointing losses this first month of the season. The depth of the league is a serious question with Wake Forest and Boston College playing below .500. Two teams that have been pleasant surprises are Virginia Tech in James Johnson’s head coaching debut and Maryland which looks to be back as a NCAA tournament team under Mark Turgeon.
Duke has established itself as the team to beat in the ACC and a potential No. 1 seed in the Big Dance. Life goes on after Rivers and last season’s disappointing end with a trio of seniors, a dynamic freshman and several role players buying into team first. The focus is where Coach K wants it and for opponents that makes life a living hell.
Just the way Duke likes it.