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Al Featherston On Thanksgiving Leftovers

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One of the best things about Thanksgiving is devouring the leftovers. So let's dig into the sports leftovers from the holiday weekend:

THE BATTLE OF ATLANTIS

Duke is not going to be No. 1 when the new polls come out this afternoon, but without question, the Blue Devils have the nation's best resume at this moment -- victories over No. 2 Kentucky and No. 3 Louisville, plus wins over likely NCAA-bound teams from Minnesota and Virginia Commonwealth.

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While it's much too early for such things to matter, Duke was No. 1 in the RPI as of Sunday morning, while just No. 6 (still behind No. 4 Louisville) in Ken Pomeroy's rankings.

No matter - such things will take care of themselves. Unlike football, which is dominated by the polls, basketball determines its champions on the court.

And Saturday night, the 2012-13 Blue Devils won their first championship. It's probably the least important in the progression of potential titles that lie ahead - the ACC regular season, the ACC Tournament, the NCAA regional championship, and, the ultimate, the NCAA championship. Still, it's a title and it was worth winning.

For one thing, it demonstrates how strong a base Mike Krzyzewski has to build upon this season.

Duke is 6-0 at the moment for two reasons:

-- Krzyzewski's core of three senior starters is playing at a very high level.

Mason Plumlee, who is averaging 19.7 points and 10 rebounds while shooting 67.2 percent from the field and an astounding (for him) 80.0 percent from the foul line, has inserted himself into the national player of the year discussion.

Seth Curry (17.0 points a game) has been extraordinary - even if you discount the limitations on his practice time by his leg injury.

Ryan Kelly (11.8 points a game) hasn't shot as well as he normally shoots (he hit over 40 percent of his 3s last year and he's at 23.5 so far this season; a career 80 percent FT shooter, he's a 67.9 at the moment), but he's playing extraordinarily well - especially at the defensive end.

-- Two young guards are matching the staff's most optimistic expectations.

Many observers said that for Duke to be great, sophomore Quinn Cook had to be great - and he was in Atlantis, winning the MVP award as he finished with 13.7 points and 6.3 assists. He's turned the ball over a little more than he did a year ago, but he also dominated the Louisville game late, scoring Duke's last eight points. Aside from the eight games before Kyrie Irving was hurt in 2010-11, he's giving Duke its first real point guard play since Chris Duhon was in the lineup.

Rasheed Suliamon has had to replace NBA lottery pick Austin Rivers and while he's not quite the explosive scorer that Rivers proved to be, he's a more complete player. He scores well enough (12.0 points a game -- just 3.5 less than Rivers averaged), he's shooting well (40 percent on 3s and 80 percent from the FT line), he's averaging 2.0 assists a game and, most importantly, is already a significantly better defender than his predecessor. He also appears to be a lot easier to play with - and, no, that's not a snarky comment about personalities or chemistry, merely an observation that he doesn't demand the ball so much and hence, the offensive doesn't come to a grinding halt when he has the ball in his hands.

That's five players and it's significant that the quintet of starters are all averaging over 30 minutes a game. Junior Tyler Thornton, who started the first two games, has averaged 21.2 minutes a game and has been a wonderful backup guard. After that, the minutes drop to 9.7 a game for Josh Hairston, who has been an effective spot player up front.

Right now, Krzyzewski has a six-and-a-half man rotation.

Is that enough for a long season?

I know that a lot of Kentucky fans - and even many national commentators - think that the young Wildcats are going to close the gap on Duke over the next four months. If the two teams meet again in March, they believe, Kentucky will have the edge.

That's not an unreasonable proposition. The "Cats expect to get point guard Ryan Harrow back in the near future and he should make them better (even if he is not, in my opinion, the kind of first-round NBA talent they think he is). John Calipari's three freshmen starters in the Duke game certainly ought to be a lot better in March.

But so should Duke.

There's no law that says the Blue Devils will remain a static team. It's true that the three senior starters have pretty much established their level of performance. Yeah, Kelly should regain his shooting touch at some point and that will make the trio more valuable, but consistency - not improvement - is their watchword.

On the other hand, Duke's two young guards have as much room for growth as any of Kentucky's kids. Cook and Sulaimon have barely scraped their potential.

Then there are the three freshmen frontcourt players who haven't even begin to explore their possibilities:

(1) Marshall Plumlee - the 7-foot younger brother of Miles and Mason, should be returning any time now from a preseason broken foot. Krzyzewski actually expected him back in time to see a little action in the Bahamas. It's hard to tell how much MP3 will contribute when he does return - and how long it will take him to regain his form after missing six weeks - but don't forget, Krzyzewski has projected him as one of Duke's top six players before his injury. By March, the youngest Plumlee should be ready to play the same role that Mason played as a freshman during Duke's 2010 title run (and, remember, Mason missed the start of his freshman season in the fall of 2009 with a wrist injury).

(2) Amile Jefferson - this 6-8 freshman has already made himself a Cameron favorite with his enthusiasm and his unique game. He's hard to figure - he's too slender to battle inside and his doesn't put the ball on the floor or shoot from outside well enough to be a true wing. But he can use his length (an over 7-foot wingspan) to defend on the perimeter and despite his lack of bulk, he's a surprisingly successful scorer close to the basket. He's getting less than eight minutes a game at the moment, but I wouldn't be surprised if Coach K and his staff figure out better ways to use such a unique player.

(3) Alex Murphy - the biggest mystery on the team. Before the season, the staff talked up Murphy as a potential starter - and, indeed, he started the team's two exhibition games. Then he didn't get off the bench in the opener. He's played sparingly - averaging 2.8 minutes in four games. Personally, I think Coach K is trying to make some kind of point - like he did by not starting Cook in the first two games. Murphy can and has been an effective wing defender. He's probably the second-best rebounder on the team (behind Mason). He has offensive skills, but he's been disturbingly tentative on the offensive end so far.

I think we'll see those three players get some long looks in December. I doubt it happens Wednesday night against Ohio State - I think we'll see the same six-and-a-half man rotation that has been so good so far. And it might now happen much before exams has Duke takes on a solid Delaware team in Cameron (one that has already beaten Virginia), then goes up to the Meadowlands to meet Temple, which defeated Duke a year ago.

But after the 11-day break, Duke returns to play three games in 11 days - all in Cameron and all against opponents the Blue Devils should handle easily (Cornell, Elon and Santa Clara).

I think that's when we see Murphy, Jefferson and MP3 get significant minutes. That's when we'll find out if Krzyzewski will expand his roster or stick with his reliable six-and-a-half men.

THE ACC VS. THE BIG TEN

The ACC-Big Ten Challenge has never had more significance than it does this week. It was exactly one week ago today that Maryland announced that it was leaving the ACC for the Big Ten - setting the two leagues up as real rivals.

Of course, under the circumstances, I wonder how we should count a Maryland win or loss at Northwestern Tuesday night - does it go in the ACC column or with the Big Ten?

The challenge is also important this year because national commentators have anointed the Big Ten as the nation's best conference. It would be a feather in the cap of the ACC to win this challenge. Of course, there were seasons when the Big Ten was proclaimed the best only to lose the challenge … and it still didn't change the storyline. Once the media gets its teeth into a storyline, it's reluctant to let go.

Still, it would be sweet to break the Big Ten's three-year winning streak in the challenge. Keep in mind, the ACC won the first 10 challenges, so the league still has a 76-55 record in challenge games.

How does this year's event shape up? I'm terrible at predictions, so I'll let Ken Pomeroy do the work.

Let's take the 12 games in order:

(1) Iowa (5-1) at Virginia Tech (5-0) - The Hokies were picked 10th in the preseason standings by both the coaches and the media, but so far they've fashioned a 5-0 record on the basis of a weak schedule and some outstanding play by senior point guard Erick Green (24.4 and 5.2 assists). Virginia Tech is kind of like a poor man's Duke so far - a very thin rotation, but a strong core. New coach James Johnson really has just four solid players so far. Iowa has also played a weak schedule (losing to Wichita). The Hawkeyes are supposed to be on the rise in Fran McCaffery's third season in Ames. Best player is 6-7 junior guard Devyn Marble.

Pomeroy's guess: Virginia Tech is a 56 percent favorite at home.

(2) Minnesota (6-1) at Florida State (4-1) - We all saw how tough Minnesota was against Duke in the Bahamas. A strong, veteran team. Meanwhile, FSU - a team I think will be very good - is off to a traditional slow start. This game could be a brutal defensive battle.

Pomeroy's guess: Minnesota is a 55 percent favorite on the road

(3) No. 16 N.C. State (4-1) at No. 4 Michigan (5-0) -- The first battle of heavyweights. N.C. State entered the season as the ACC preseason favorites, but the first time they ran into a tough opponent they folded like a Sidney Lowe team. Even more disturbing was the way they bounced back - barely beating UNC Asheville at home. Michigan appears to be extremely talented and well-balanced. They have impressive victories over Pitt and Kansas State.

Pomeroy's guess: Michigan is an 83 percent favorite at home.

(4) Maryland (4-1) at Northwestern (6-0) - Tough call - Maryland has not been as impressive in four lopsided wins as it was in its close loss to Kentucky. Northwestern manhandled five outmatched opponents, then had to go overtime to beat Illinois State, their first decent opponent. Northwestern has a lot of depth and balance and a pair of senior guards. This is a pretty important game for the Wildcats - they have never qualified for the NCAA Tournament and Maryland is the kind of quality victim they need on their resume.

Pomery's guess: Northwestern is a 76 percent favorite at home

(5) Nebraska (4-1) at Wake Forest (2-2) - Don't let the records fool you - Nebraska is pretty terrible. - picked dead last in the Big Ten and trying to rebuild under first-year coach Tim Miles - with just one returning starter off last year's 12-18 team. Wake isn't a lot better, but the Deacons do have two quality players in Travis McKie and C.J. Harris. If freshman Codi Miller-McIntyre is on, the Deacs aren't terrible.

Pomeroy's guess: Wake Forest is a 68 percent favorite at home.

(6) No. 9 North Carolina (5-1) at No. 1 Indiana (6-0) - Butler took some of the luster off this battle of heavyweights when the Bulldogs ripped UNC in Maui, but at least (unlike NC State), the Tar Heels did bounce back strong. So far, Indiana has done nothing to put its preseason No. 1 ranking in question - beating four patsies and two decent opponents (Georgia and Georgetown).

Pomeroy's guess: Indiana is an 83 percent favorite at home.

If you've been keeping count, that should give the Big Ten a 4-2 edge after the first night. Of course, no one would be shocked if FSU held serve on home court and even things up … even Maryland is good enough to knock off a less-than-overpowering Northwestern team and give the ACC an edge after the first night.

I'm not predicting that (remember, I'm terrible at predictions), but it's not an unreasonable hope for ACC partisans.

On to the second night:

(7) Virginia (4-2) at Wisconsin (4-2) - Tony Bennett returns to his home state and while the two teams have the same record, that means very little. The Badgers have played a very good six-game schedule and have losses to ranked opponents Creighton and Florida. Virginia has stumbled against a weak slate, losing to George Mason (which was missing two starters) and to Delaware. The Cavs have been crippled by the loss of senior point guard Jontel Evans, who is coming off a broken foot and has only been able to play three minutes so far.

Pomeroy's guess: Wisconsin is an 84 percent favorite at home

(8) Purdue (2-3) at Clemson (4-1) - This is not the Purdue team that spent so much time on the fringes of the top 10 in recent years. These Boilermakers have lost to Bucknell, Villanova and Oregon State. Junior guard Terone Johnson and senior forward D.J. Byrd have been the best players so far. Clemson has not been a world-beater, but they were respectable in their one loss (to No. 17 Gonzaga) have been competent against lesser competition. Brad Brownell is getting contributions from a lot of people and you know they'll play tough defense.

Pomeroy's guess: Clemson is a 66 percent favorite at home

(9) No. 15 Michigan State (5-1) at Miami (3-1) - So far this season, Miami has been the ACC's most disappointing team - losing to Florida Gulf Coast and posting unimpressive victories over the lines of Stetson, Jacksonville and Detroit. Of course, Jim Larranaga's team had to play without senior point guard Durand Scott for the first three games (due to suspension) and he makes a big difference. But Reggie Johnson - supposedly primed for a great senior year - has been very mediocre. You know Tom Izzo's team will be tough and well-coached. They bounced back from a disappointing loss to UConn in Germany to beat Kansas in the preliminary to the Duke-Kentucky game in Atlanta. Keith Appling has been their star, but the real fun will be watching the 6-9, 270-pound Derrick Nix collide with the 6-10, 284-pound Johnson.

Pomeroy's guess: Michigan State is a 64 percent favorite on the road

(10) Georgia Tech (4-1) at Illinois (6-0) - The unbeaten Illini might be popping into the top 25 this week after winning the Maui Classic (the tournament where UNC finished third). The Jackets have been surprisingly effective - especially in Sunday's victory over St. Mary's in Anaheim. And as good as Illinois looked in Maui, the Big Tem team needed a late 3-pointer to edge Gardner-Webb in Champaign Sunday.

Pomeroy's guess: Illinois is an 82 percent favorite at home.

(11) Boston College (2-4) at Penn State (3-2) - The Nittany Lions, picked 11th in the Big Ten anyway, suffered a major blow when the team's best player - senior guard Tim Frazier - was sidelined after just four games. Then again, PSU promptly went out and beat a decent Bucknell team in their first game without him. Boston College has been up and down, somewhat due to Coach Mark Donahue's determination to break in freshman guards Olivier (BTW, it is Olivier - as in Sir Laurence Olivier - and not Oliver) Hanlan and Joe Rahon, partly due to the ankle injury that hobbled his best player - sophomore forward Ryan Anderson in Charleston, S.C. Anderson played 15 rather ineffective minutes in Sunday's loss to Bryant - that's not a good sign.

Pomeroy's guess: Penn State is a 75 percent favorite at home

(12) No. 3 Ohio State (4-0) vs. No. 5 Duke (6-0) - By the time the new polls come out, this is likely to be No. 2 vs. No. 3. No matter, it's the one heavyweight game that promises to deliver the hype. Nice that it's the finale. We know all about Duke, hoping to add a third top five victim to its resume. Ohio State has not been tested yet, thanks to the bad weather that wiped out their carrier game with Marquette. But the Buckeyes do return three starters off the team that won 31 games and beat Duke by 22 points a year ago. That one was in Columbus and this one is in Cameron. The Buckeyes have the kind of veteran core that should be able to withstand the hostile environment, especially junior forward Deshaun Thomas and junior guard Aaron Craft.

Pomeroy's guess: Duke is a 64 percent favorite at home.

So if you add up the guesses, Pomeroy's predictor would have the Big Ten winning 8-4 - the same margin as a year ago. It's actually worse than that - the only four games with an 80 percent favorite are all in favor of the Big Ten. That means the ACC will have to claim a large number - almost a sweep - off the tossup games.

It doesn't look good for the ACC this season, but who knows in the future, when Notre Dame -- and maybe UConn? Maybe Louisville? -- join the ACC lineup.

GOING BOWLING

I understand this is a basketball board, but any wrap-up of the last weekend wouldn't be complete without noting that Duke just finished its best regular season in 18 years with an entertaining, if disappointing 52-45 loss to Miami.

Obviously, it was a bit of a letdown to finish with four straight losses after a 6-2 start, but anybody with an ounce of judgment can see the strides that Coach David Cutcliffe has made in his five years in Durham. He inherited the nation's worst BCS program - one that won just two games - total! -- in the three seasons before his arrival.

Cutcliffe has Duke back in a bowl - probably either the Belk Bowl in Charlotte or the Music City Bowl in Nashville. It's going to mean a lot to win that game and finish with a winning season, rather than end with five straight losses and a 6-7 season.

Still, in the long run, Cutcliffe's program does not hang on any one win or loss.

Under his guidance, Duke has climbed from the bottom of the BCS ranks to somewhere in the middle. The facilities have improved greatly. Salaries for assistant coaches are competitive. Recruiting has picked up.

Last month, Duke announced plans for a massive fundraising campaign that will transform Wallace Wade Stadium. The details of the plan are not as significant as the demonstration of the administration's support for the football program. That has not always been the case … but it is now.

And may I offer a long-term look at Cutcliffe's program.

Duke was lucky enough to enjoy the performance of a number of outstanding seniors - especially the record-setting pass-catch combination of quarterback Sean Renfree to wide receiver Connor Vernon. They will be missed - as will as safeties Walt Canty and Jordon Byas, cornerback Lee Butler, center Brian Moore, running back-turned wide receiver Desmond Scott and linebacker Austin Gamble.

But their excellence should not obscure the fact that this was a VERY young team (the 10th fewest seniors of any team nationally). The bulk of the two front lines - both offensively and defensively - will return intact, older and stronger. There are plenty of skill players to build around - from 1,000-yard wide receiver Jamieson Crowder to the effective tailback trio of Juwan Thompson, Josh Snead and Jela Duncan to the ACC's best cornerback, Ross Cockrell. And, oh yes, don't forget the two freshmen kickers provided Duke with some all-ACC quality punting and placekicking.

Remember that this year's team had to overcome a devastating string of injuries, starting with the tragic accident on July 4, when Blair Holliday's season (and probably career) were ended in a boating accident. The secondary was a shambles because of injuries all year and the team's best tight end (Braxton Deaver) and linebacker (Kelby Brown) didn't get on the field for a single snap.

If that's not enough, consider that Duke played the toughest ACC schedule of any conference team. I hear that North Carolina is going to celebrate their Coastal Division title (even though the ACC specifically said the team on probation cannot win the division) - okay, they finished 5-3 to Duke's 3-5. But let me ask you, what would Duke's record have been had they been able to avoid playing Florida State and Clemson - as UNC did?

My point is that - in perspective - Duke accomplished a lot this season and is in position to continue its climb through the ACC ranks. Not only does the bulk of the team return (seven offensive starters, seven defensive starters - and almost every second teamer on both sides of the ball), but the team should get back such injured stars as Deaver and `Kelby Brown.

The biggest question mark heading into next season will be the quarterback transition. Renfree is going to finish as the No. 2 career passer in Duke history. He will be missed.

But backup Anthony Boone was good enough to step in and save the victory at Wake Forest (the score was tied when he took over for the injured Renfree), then to start and lead the Devils to a resounding victory over Virginia.

Next spring, Boone will be challenged by redshirt freshman Thomas Sirk, an intriguing talent who is going to press for playing time. Cutcliffe has said that his idea situation for a top quarterback prospect is to redshirt him as a freshman, then have him come off the bench the next year - that's the formula he used with Eli Manning at Ole Miss and it worked well with Renfree at Duke. We'll see if Sirk follows a similar path.

It does seem to me that Cutcliffe is about to make a significant change in his offensive philosophy. Renfree - like the Manning brothers and almost every QB Cutcliffe has mentored - is a classic, drop-back, pro-style quarterback.

But every quarterback he's recruited at Duke since Renfree has been an effective runner as well as a thrower. Brandon Connette actually runs much better than he throws. Boone can throw, but he's a powerful runner when he takes off. Sirk has a strong arm, but he is also an elusive runner. Even 2012 commitment Parker Boehme is more renowned as a runner than a passer.

It makes me wonder if Cutcliffe is not planning to install a more ground-oriented version of the spread than the pass-happy style of his first five years at Duke?

That will be fun to watch in the spring and next fall. For now, the focus will be on the upcoming bowl game and the chance for a winning season.

Whatever the outcome of that game, just understand how far Duke football has come in Cutcliffe's five seasons … and how clearly it's headed in the right direction.

Basketball is great … but it would be nice to be successful on the gridiron too.