It seems as if Duke has improved in all facets of the game since last season, but there appears to be one most improved area: Defense.
"That's the biggest thing about Duke," sophomore point guard Quinn Cook said. "Duke defends."
And that's what's on No. 1 Duke's mind as it begins ACC play Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium against Wake Forest.
The numbers from a year ago weren't pretty. The Blue Devils ranked an underwhelming 70th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency—which measures points allowed per defensive possession—according to basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy.
To put that into perspective, Duke ranked 10th in field goal percentage allowed and points per game allowed. However, the team now ranks seventh in adjusted defensive efficiency, as well as third in field goal percentage allowed and points per game allowed.
"This is probably the best [defense] that I've been on and been a huge part of," senior forward Ryan Kelly said. "Guys are honestly are just working their butt[s] off on the defensive side of the ball."
Kelly's improvement on defense has made a large impact on the team's overall success thus far. At 6-foot-11, the senior has the height, but has struggled to keep up with stronger power forwards, or faster small forwards. This season, Kelly has averaged 1.8 blocks per game and is on pace to finish with an average +/- of 15.5 per game, nearly double his previous season best.
"At times in my career I wasn't able to guard one or the other, or either," Kelly said. "But I've worked pretty hard to put myself in a position so I can do those things."
Despite having the worst overall record among all ACC teams, Wake Forest (7-5) has an offense that will challenge Duke's interior defense. The Demon Deacons rank fifth in the conference in field goal percentage at 45.9 percent and rank second in the country in free throw rate at 52.0, a figure calculated by dividing free throws attempted by field goals attempted. In other words, Wake Forest is good at getting to the line, so Kelly and Mason Plumlee will need to make sure to stay out of foul trouble.
But don't expect Duke's big men to play timidly.
"Our coaches always talk about protecting the basket," Plumlee said. "You can either take a charge or block a shot, so you better be doing one or the other."
Plumlee, along with the rest of the team, realizes that Wake Forest presents the first of many challenging ACC matchups in 2013.
"It's a new season, it really is," Plumlee said. "Everybody is 0-0, every win counts the same. It's the best part of the year."