A Perfect Season?
Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves, but Duke looks like a much better team than the one that captured its fourth national title in the history of the program last season.
It isn’t all that uncommon for a defending national champion to enter the following season ranked atop the national preseason polls. When three starters graduate and move on to play professional basketball from that team, however, it becomes much more of a rarity. For the 2010-11 Duke Blue Devils men’s basketball team, that is exactly the case.
Coming off a 61-59 victory over Butler in the 2010 NCAA Championship game, Duke came into this season without last season’s co-captains, Jon Scheyer and Lance Thomas, as well as center Brian Zoubek, a trio of seniors which may have been the team’s three best defensive players. That being said, Coach Mike Krzyzewski team returns the 2010 Final Four Most Outstanding Player, Kyle Singler, guard Nolan Smith and adds Kyrie Irving, one of the top high school recruits in the class of 2010.
Just about every pundit and expert, including myself (although most would argue that I am neither), had the Blue Devils tabbed as the top team in the country heading into this young college basketball season. After one month of play the Blue Devils, and Irving for that matter, have been even better than advertised.
Coach K’s squad went into Saturday’s rematch of the NCAA title game with Butler a perfect 7-0, including convincing wins over No. 4 Kansas State (82-68) and No. 6 Michigan State (the Spartans trailed by at least two possessions for the last nine minutes of the game). There is little doubt that this Duke squad has, at least in the early going, adjusted well to life without Thomas, Zoubek and Scheyer (who, by the way, was a finalist for the Wooden Award last year.
Blue Devils not missing a beat
This edition of Duke Basketball hasn’t missed a beat. As impressive as the team that won the national championship a year ago was, it can’t compare with what the Blue Devils have done through seven games this season.
Coach K’s squad is averaging more than 90 points per game, third most in the country, ranks in the top five in the nation in three-point field goal percentage (.443) and ranks in the top 20 in assists per game (17.9) and field goal percentage (.500). As crazy as it sounds, in spite of losing three senior starters to the professional ranks, Duke looks better this year that it did last.
Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler provide a great deal of leadership and experience to go along with the fact that they were both among the 50 players named to the 2010-11 Wooden Award watch list. The senior shooting guard and combo forward, respectively, played huge roles in the team’s run to the national crown last season and haven’t missed a beat this year.
Smith and Singler are combining to average 32.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, 6.6 assists and 2.2 steals per game. Perhaps more importantly, the duo has sacrificed personal statistics for the good of the basketball team, as both players are scoring, and shooting, the ball less than they did a year ago. Meanwhile, Irving and sophomore forward Mason Plumlee have emerged as key contributors this season. As a result, the Blue Devils have an extremely balanced offensive attack.
Duke can attack equally well from the perimeter or the paint and has five players averaging better than ten points per game (Smith, Irving, Singler, Plumlee and sophomore guard Andre Dawkins). Try to take away the post and Duke will kill you from the outside. Guard the three-point line and Plumlee, who is shooting .596 from the field, and Singler will go to work inside. Double team Smith and a handful of other Dukies will kill you from a variety of spots on the floor.
This team is far more balanced and has more depth than the team that won it all a year ago. A scary thought, no doubt.
Irving is the real Deal
There was significant hype about what Kyrie Irving would bring to this team coming into the season and, in the earliest stage of his career, he has exceeded the expectations. The freshman point guard is tied with Smith as the team’s leading scorer (16.9 points per game) and assist man (5.6 per game) despite the fact that he playing fewer minutes than both Smith and Singler.
The freshman came up big in Duke’s two biggest games in the young season, blowing by Jacob Pullen with ease in the win over Kansas State and giving Korie Lucious and Kalin Lucas fits as the Blue Devils knocked off Tom Izzo’s Michigan State team, perhaps the biggest threat to Duke’s crown, on Dec. 1.
Irving is more than just an offensive threat, however. He is a fearless and tough-nosed defensive player who helped limit Pullen and Lucas to just six combined field goals (out of 25 attempts) and three assists.
As great as Irving’s physical skills are, his leadership skills are just as impressive. He has come in and taken a backseat to nobody on what was clearly and veteran and talented Duke squad. Irving is not only good enough to play with, and dominate, the best players in the country, but he knows it.
Still a long way to go
It is still too early to hand the Blue Devils their second national title in as many years, however. Duke still has an awful lot to prove and it is only the first week of December. Conference play hasn’t even started, for Pete’s sake.
Duke has played the meat of its non-conference schedule and this is certainly a down year in the Atlantic Coast Conference, perhaps the most storied in all of college basketball. Duke is the only ACC team currently ranked in the Top 25 which, not to get too far ahead of ourselves, gives Coach K’s team a realistic opportunity at an undefeated regular season.
As Duke’s young talent continues to adjust to playing big time college basketball this team is only going to get better as the season progresses, assuming it can stay healthy. With a Hall of Fame coach, a pair of Wooden Award nominees and a freshman point guard who may well be the first pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, the rest of the country better watch out.
It could be a perfect season in Durham. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves…