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Blue Devils Off To A Fast Start, But Will It Last?

The ACC schedule means a tough run at the end of the season.

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Jan 9, 2016; Durham, NC, USA; Virginia Tech Hokies forward Zach LeDay (32) goes to the basket between Duke Blue Devils guard Brandon Ingram (14) and Duke Blue Devils center Marshall Plumlee (40) in their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Jan 9, 2016; Durham, NC, USA; Virginia Tech Hokies forward Zach LeDay (32) goes to the basket between Duke Blue Devils guard Brandon Ingram (14) and Duke Blue Devils center Marshall Plumlee (40) in their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Duke got off to a 3-0 start in ACC play Saturday with a ridiculously easy victory over Virginia Tech in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

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On paper, that’s impressive. The Blue Devils haven’t opened 3-0 in ACC play since 2012. Neither the 2010 or 2015 national champions opened 3-0 in ACC play. Neither did the 2013 Elite Eight team.

I wish I could be more impressed by those facts.

Unfortunately, Duke’s fast start is largely the result of a back-loaded ACC schedule. The ACC currently has six ranked teams. The Devils won’t play a ranked ACC opponent until playing at Miami on Jan. 25. That’s the eighth ACC game for Mike Krzyzewski’s team.

So Duke opens with seven games against the middle/lower echelon of the ACC … then finishes with six of eight games against ranked ACC opponents to close out the season!

And it’s not just Duke.

North Carolina doesn’t play a ranked ACC opponent until facing Louisville on Feb. 1. Pitt does face Louisville later this week, but then doesn’t see another ranked ACC foe until Virginia on Feb. 6. Virginia gets Miami Tuesday night, then doesn’t see another ranked ACC foe until Louisville on Jan. 30th … rather than count them down, just note that the ACC has four matchups between its six ranked teams in January and 17 in February and the first five days of March.

Some of that is happenstance.

Before the season it was just as likely that Notre Dame, Syracuse and even Florida State would be ranked as Miami and Pitt. Indeed, the Irish were in the preseason top 25 and ‘Cuse appeared briefly in the poll before the end of November. N.C. State and Florida State got significant support in the preseason AP poll.

Nobody will have guessed that the Irish, the Orange, the Wolfpack and even the Seminoles would all be underachievers at this point.

Still, the back-loaded ACC schedule is largely the result of a conscious decision by the conference office to hold its best games until February – in the most part until after the Super Bowl. The NFL has become such a ratings monster that it dominates the airwaves in season, especially in the playoffs.

So the two Duke-UNC games – the ACC’s most valuable TV properties – are pushed back to Feb. 17 and March 5. Virginia’s two games with the two Triangle superpowers were scheduled for Feb. 13 and Feb. 27.

That makes financial sense – it’s smart to keep the league’s TV partners happy. But it makes it extremely difficult to make much sense of the ACC race.

Okay, Duke is 3-0.

But how big are any of the wins? The hard-fought victory at Wake Forest is fairly impressive, I guess. The Deacs are dangerous and are likely to upset a top team or two in Lawrence Joel. But the road win at Boston College? The home victory over a Virginia Tech team that lost at home to Alabama State?

Fair enough, the Hokies were coming off homecourt upsets of N.C. State and No. 4 Virginia. But I’d be willing to bet that they don’t end up beating any NCAA-bound ACC teams on the road.

Duke faces another dangerous road game next week at Clemson … or more precisely at Clemson’s home-away-from home in Greenville.

The Tigers appear to be on a roll after winning at Syracuse early last week and upsetting No. 16 Louisville Sunday in Greenville. That’s certainly not a gimmie for the Blue Devils.

After that, Duke has home games with floundering Notre Dame and struggling Syracuse.

The Devils could easily get to 6-0 in the ACC and it wouldn’t tell us a lot (although it would be a nice foundation for a run at the regular season championship).

The same applies to UNC.

I think their win at Florida State last Monday was similar in difficulty to Duke’s win at Wake Forest. In other words, a solid victory over a dangerous, but flawed team. Their homecourt wins over Clemson and Georgia Tech are solid, but not that much different than Duke’s victory over Virginia Tech (which did, after all, beat a very good Virginia team at home). And I don’t know what to make of their win at Syracuse – it was certainly a tough atmosphere, but the Orange are looking worse and worse as time goes on (remember, ‘Cuse also lost at home to Clemson).

Still, even if North Carolina has not yet established its dominance of the league, the Tar Heels have taken care of business so far. They’ve put themselves in position to make a real title run when they start playing the contenders in February.

That’s more than Virginia can say.

The ACC’s third preseason superpower has stumbled out of the gate in ACC play, losing road games at Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech – two teams that aren’t likely to sniff the NCAA Tournament. The team that routed West Virginia and Villanova in back-to-back games in December certainly has some issues. For one thing, the Cavs have not been playing defense at the same high level that Tony Bennett’s teams have played the last two seasons.

Have the new rules impacted Virginia’s defense? Have opponents started to figure out the pack-line defense? Has the graduation loss of Darion Adkins made that much of a defensive difference?

I don’t know the answer to those questions, but allow me to offer one theory from out of left field.

When I talked to Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill at ACC Operation Basketball back in October, I was struck by how much they are focused on getting this Virginia team ready for postseason. They are frustrated that in the last two seasons, Virginia has been the ACC’s best team in the regular season – but a relative flop in NCAA Tournament play. They were asking themselves questions about how much energy and focus they expended to win the regular season title and whether it left them drained – mentally and/or physically – for postseason?

I got the sense that this season is all about postseason success for the Cavs. I’m not suggesting that they are consciously blowing off the regular season, but I’m not sure they are ready to make the commitment in focus that it takes every night to dominate the ACC.

In the long run, two back-to-back January losses to ACC also-rans is not a sign of failure – a year ago, Duke lost to N.C. State and Miami in back-to-back January games … the two losses cost the Devils the regular season title, but it clearly didn’t indicate a long-term problem for the eventual national champs.

Virginia can still be the ACC’s best team. The Cavs’ opportunities against the other conference contenders are still ahead. The two losses make it unlikely (not impossible) that the Cavs will win a third ACC regular season title, but if they make a deep NCAA run, any regular season shortcoming will be forgotten.

MEASURING THE BLUE DEVILS

In addition to being 3-0 in the ACC, Duke is 14-2 overall.

That’s not bad, especially since one of the losses came in overtime to a top 25 quality team (okay, Utah was not top 25 when Duke played them. But they were top 25 the week before the Duke game and returned to the top 25 the week after the Duke game) on a day when the Devils were physically shorthanded.

Grayson Allen has recovered from the flu that bothered him so much against Utah, but the Blue Devils continue to play without senior forward Amile Jefferson.

In that sense, Duke’s back-loaded schedule may be a blessing – there’s a reasonable chance Jefferson will be back before the schedule hits murderer’s row.

If Jefferson does return and can match the level he was playing at before the injury, it may turn out that his absence will help the development of this team.

Allow me to explain that statement.

Injuries are a part of basketball.

Over the years, we’ve seen some great teams leveled by injuries – the 2011 Duke team was, in my humble option (and Coach K’s not so humble opinion) poised to be one of the great teams in school and ACC history before Kyrie Irving was sidelined with a toe injury. I doubt that the 2012 team wins it all even if Ryan Kelly doesn’t get hurt, but I suspect that a healthy team gets past Lehigh and lasts a lot longer in NCAA play. And Duke was the best team in the country when Kelly was again hurt midway through the 2013 season.

Both Irving and Kelly returned to the lineup for NCAA play (well, Kelly returned in 2013, although not 2012). But in both cases, neither the team nor the player regained the same level of performance as before the injury I think the same thing happened to Virginia a year ago. They got Justin Anderson back in time for postseason, but not in time to re-integrate him into the rotation..

That’s something to keep in mind when Jefferson returns.

Of course, there are plenty of instances in Duke history when an injured player returned and the team didn’t miss a beat. The best example is 1992, when the Devils lost Bobby Hurley for almost a month with a broken foot … then as he returned, Grant Hill was sidelined with a severe ankle sprain. Neither injury hurt the eventual national champs in the long run.

But there is a third injury circumstance that we’ve seen before. It’s rare, but on a handful of occasions, we’ve seen teams actually benefit from the injury and return of a key player.

Perhaps the most famous example of that was N.C. State in 1983. When senior guard Derek Whittenburg broke his foot against Virginia in late January, the Pack suffered. But Valvano’s team also grew as it found other scoring options. And when Whittenburg returned for the last week of the regular season, N.C. State was much, MUCH better than when he went out.

I think the same thing happened to Duke in 2001.

Carlos Boozer broke his foot against Maryland in the team’s final home game. The season appeared to be ruined. But his injury forced Coach K to remake his team as a pressing, 3-point shooting dynamo. Boozer returned in time to make a huge impact in the Final Four wins over Maryland and Arizona, but it’s debatable whether Duke would have even gotten that far if Boozer had not been hurt and K had not changed his team’s style of play.

I’m not promising anything in regards to this year’s Duke team, but I do think that if Amile Jefferson can return at close to full speed – and I realize that’s a big if – his team might be better for his absence.

Duke was a developing young squad when he went out. Grayson Allen was exploding as a big time player. Brandon Ingram was learning what he could and could not do at the college level. Freshmen Luke Kennard and Derryck Thornton were also finding their games (and still are, to some extent).

In a way, Jefferson’s strong early play was a crutch for those kids, especially on defense and on the boards. They’ve had to develop and win without him. Allen and Ingram are now two of the most dangerous offensive players in the league – and Kennard is not far behind. Marshall Plumlee seems to be blossoming as a post player. Matt Jones has solidified his leadership skills.

The only disappointment is the failure of Chase Jeter to take advantage of the opportunity that Jefferson’s absence has created for him in the post. I believe Jeter has got a lot of talent and will be a significant player at Duke – whether later this year, next year or beyond, I don’t know. But it’s obvious that as of this moment, he’s still not ready to be a factor in a tight game.

When Jefferson returns, he’ll be returning to a much better Duke team than the one he left. Good enough to make a deep run in March?

That remains to be seen. The truth is that Duke’s 14-2 start is not all that impressive.

I know that the Devils are No. 6 in Pomeroy’s rankings, No. 9 in the RPI, No. 10 in the coaches’ poll and No. 14 in the AP poll. Still, I don’t see a lot on the team’s resume. Duke hasn’t beaten a top 50 RPI team or a ranked opponent.

I’m not even sure than Duke has beaten a team that will end up with an NCAA at-large bid. Maybe Indiana? The Hoosiers are 14-3 after beating Ohio State in Bloomington Sunday, but are just 67 in the RPI. Maybe VCU? They are one of the best teams in the A-10 and that league usually gets more than one team … although they are barely an RPI top 100 team at the moment.

Duke will get a lot more chances to post an impressive win or two in February. In the meantime, all the Devils can do is try and get better and hope for Jefferson’s return in the near future.

The back-loaded schedule may prevent any really impressive wins for awhile, but is also means that the Blue Devils need to build their record before the going gets tougher.