Here's the thing about the Arizona game: we'd rather claim this loss than the win over Vermont.
Duke was a long way from perfect, obviously, starting with scoring less points than Arizona, but the Blue Devils played with a lot of heart and passion. Arizona was a bigger team and one with more established roles and relationships. But Duke was still in it to the end.
Over the last two games, Duke's defense has really gotten sharper. Duke held Alabama to 40.4% and 2-12 from three point range. On Sunday night, Arizona shot 48.9%. Better obviously, but a lot of that came late in the game when Arizona pulled away. And it's still far better than the 64.8% 1-5 Vermont shot in Cameron.
And remember, much of Vermont's success came on layups, resulting from a lack of defensive communication on Duke's part.
Duke defended much better in the lane than previously, and more interestingly, made a habit of stripping the ball from Wildcats who were in it.
That's one way to neutralize a size advantage.
It also lets you get out and run, which is another way to do it.
While Duke's defense was much better and Duke showed a capacity for forcing turnovers which had not been seen this season, or at least not to htat extent, there were still some issues.
Arizona's size made scoring inside much more difficult. Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson took only one shot between them, and Jefferson missed it. Jabari Parker was off his usual pace, shooting just 7-21.
Rodney Hood was 8-14 while Quinn Cook shot 6-9.
Duke tried to take it to the basket, but it just wasn't that easy and Arizona blocked eight shots.
Because of Duke's image and reputation, there's a tendency to think that excellence just happens. Of course it never works that way. Being really good takes really good work.
This is still a team built around a freshman, albeit an extraordinary one, and a transfer sophomore.
At this point, Parker and Hood need some more consistent help. Amile Jefferson has not yet upped his game to sufficiently compliment them inside and Josh Hairston, who can at times be tremendous defensively, is never going to be an offensive force.
Quinn Cook has shown real flashes of brilliance. Just look at his tremendous second-half drive and dish to Parker. That was as good as anything we've seen this year and it was Cook at his finest, which is pretty high level.
Like Bobby Hurley, people have to be careful with Cook's daring and creativity. You don't want to cut that off. But at times he pushes things a bit too far. It's a fine line between brilliance and goat and he needs to find a way to lean more towards brilliant. He's also capable of providing considerable offensive help to Parker and Hood.
As is Rasheed Sulaimon. Sulaimon's play so far is one of the bigger mysteries of the season. As he showed last season, he is a superb defender and capable of explosive offense as well. This season?
It hasn't gone so well. He's down in every statistical category. In the cases of turnovers, this is a positive, but that's probably because he's playing about seven less minutes a game.
A confident, swaggering (in a positive way) Sulaimon would radically improve this team.
Like Cook, he needs better discretion on his drives, but unlike Cook, he could use to be more aggressive.
Still, you could look at any team and find flaws. The '92 team didn't have a true power forward. The '99 team didn't have a true center. The '01 team had a small forward with limited ballhandling skills.
You could do that all day. But what we also saw Friday was a preview of what this team could become: a group of agile, aggressive ballhawks who can get out on a break quickly and who are also a group of really good passers who can knock a defense off balance with a combination of three point shooting and penetration.
We didn't see every element of this in this game, but we're reasonably sure we will soon.