Exceeding expectations, one game at a time

I grew up a Michigan State basketball fan, and one thing that has always been said of head coach Tom Izzo is his uncanny ability to get the most out of his team come NCAA tournament time.  After leading his team to two consecutive Elite Eights, heights thought unreachable prior to the tourney, perhaps the same consideration should be given to Duke women's soccer head coach Robbie Church.

His Blue Devils went into Charlottesville, Va. to face a tough, second-seeded Virginia squad, which outshot Duke 21-6 in a 0-0 overtime tie earlier in the regular season, and executed when they needed to for a 2-0 victory. All week, Church said Duke would likely face a similar imbalance in the box score, so the team would have to convert the few chances afforded it in order to win. Well, the Blue Devils made the most of their four shots, scoring twice, and played smart, sound defense for a trip to Los Angeles for a matchup with UCLA.

The Bruins are the top-seeded team in Duke's bracket and have a intimidating 21-0-2 record on the year. It will obviously be tough for the Blue Devils to advance to the Final Four, but given what they've been able to achieve so far this postseason, don't put it past them.

Those other Spartans

I mentioned that I'm a Michigan State fan, which is a (not-so) perfect segue for this next segment. UNC-Greensboro, also nicknamed the Spartans, upended the men's soccer team in the first round of the NCAA tourney Friday. The loss plummeted Duke to a new nadir on what was an already roller-coaster season, which finished on three consecutive defeats. After seeming to recover from a midseason hiccup that included a home loss to an inferior Florida Atlantic team by reeling off four wins and a tie heading into the final stretch, the Blue Devils slipped and never regained their footing.

The Spartans became just the third team with a losing record to advance beyond the first round of the NCAAs. Both of UNC-G's goals came off aggressive counter-attacks following missed opportunities by Duke, the first of which came just 19 seconds after a Blue Devil free kick into the box was stopped by the diving Spartan netminder.

When it comes down to it, Duke should never be shutout at home by a weaker opponent in the first round when it has the two-time defending ACC Offensive Player of the Year in Mike Grella. For tips on offensive execution, the Blue Devils should read about their counterparts in the segment above.

The Stat That Says it All

Football coaches will tell you time and time again that no one play or player decides a game. Probably true. But when you take a look at Duke quarterback's passing stats from this weekend's loss against Virginia Tech, it not only gives you a lump in your throat but also makes you reconsider that oft-repeated coachspeak.

Nine passes. Six completions—two to his team, four to the other.

Ahem, that's twice as many interceptions as completions, and nearly half as many picks as pass attempts.

All the credit in the world should be extended to Duke's defense. Granted, the Hokies have one of the worst offenses in the country this year, but they still have fantastic athletes and they were afforded numerous scoring opportunities thanks to the Blue Devils' miscues. In fact, even the 14-3 score is misleading, as one of Asack's interceptions was returned the distance for the game-sealing touchdown.

Last week, head coach David Cutcliffe stressed that Asack gets the same number of reps, and more importantly the same playcalls, as starter Thaddeus Lewis in practice. He also said he believed Asack would feel more comfortable under center Saturday because he'd most likely be heading into the game with a starter's mentality.

All season, we've seen how Cutcliffe likes to bring Asack in for a series or two to serve as a changeup for the opponent. Admittedly, Asack and Lewis are different players (one a bruising run-first QB, the other a mobile-enough, smart thrower), but after seeing nearly two games with Asack fully at the helm, it's clear he works almost exclusively as the spot rotation player Cutcliffe envisioned him as and not the ace this team needed to win its last two games.

More on this later.

Turkey and All the Fixings

With Thanksgiving days away, I thought it appropriate to apply a holiday feel to this segment. Alas, though, not everything about Duke Athletics is worth being thankful for.

The Dark Meat - I might be alone on this one, but I'm not the biggest fan of dark meat. It's not awful, but I definitely won't be clamoring for it Thursday. In fact, I'd say this weekend in Duke men's basketball team was something like my first taste of dark meat: not altogether bad, but certainly not what I was expecting.

After a runaway second half dropped Southern Illinois, the Blue Devils were into the 2K Sports Classic title game and poised for the matchup with No. 4 UCLA that everyone was waiting for in this early season. But then Michigan pulled off the biggest upset of the year so far, defeating the Bruins in a bang-your-head-against-the-wall, low-scoring slugfest. Duke took care of business the next day against the Wolverines and walked out of NYC undefeated just like its fans had hoped for, only not in the same manner. Now, the Blue Devils have an awkward rematch with Michigan in a couple weeks, but either way, they handled each team that came at them this weekend, including a lopsided victory over Montana Sunday.

Duke will most likely have to wait until Dec. 6 now in order to play in its first "what-kind-of-team-are-we-really" game against No. 10 Purdue in West Lafeyette, Ind.

Pumpkin Pie Surprise - When you've eaten the turkey, the stuffing, the mashed potatoes, the green beans, and the cranberry sauce all covered in a lake of gravy, and your food coma is preventing you from moving at all, and then your father or mother makes a crazy but awesome announcement. You turn to see he/she holding a gorgeous pumpkin pie fresh from the oven, and you can only manage to say one thing.

"There's still more!?"

That's exactly what the women's soccer world said when it learned of Duke's advance to the College Cup Elite Eight. It takes a team with tenacity and will power to be outshot 36-10 in two games against Virginia and emerge with a tie and a win, the latter coming in the Sweet 16 when it counts the most. Now, a win over No. 1 UCLA for a trip to the Final Four would be something akin to watching a family member down three full plates of Thanksgiving bounty:

"I didn't think you could pull that off, but I am extremely impressed!"

Holiday MVP Award: KayAnne Gummersall, whose first-half goal against the Cavaliers was the eventual game-winner, has scored 14 goals this year to move her into fourth-place in school history for greatest single-season total.

Personnel Prayers - When Cutcliffe closes his eyes, clapses his hands together and leads the prayer at his family's table this Thanksgiving, he will most likely be thankful for a myriad of things as only his positive and spirited personality would allow. But he may want to sneak in a small one on behalf of Duke Football -- a speedy recovery for quarterback Thaddeus Lewis.

Granted, with Saturday's loss to Virginia Tech, Duke's season will end with its annual rivalry game against North Carolina for the 14th straight time. But there's still a lot to be played for. No team wants to finish the season on a five-game losing streak, especially to its rival. And when any team is eliminated from postseason play, the next best motivator is donning the role of spoiler. Unfortunately, an Asack-led Blue Devil seems like might only spoil people's holiday appetites.

I want to be clear. Asack is a fine player and an asset to this team, but he's being asked to overextend himself in the face of dire circumstances and it simply appears to be outside his capabilities. Cutcliffe was not hired to engineer an offense that only throws the ball nine times in a game, or an offense that can squeeze just three points out of five defensive takeaways. For Duke to capture the Victory Bell this season, the Blue Devils need Lewis. Or a Thanksgiving miracle.

Duke by the Numbers

Before we get to some gambling-related numbers, here are just some observations:

36.5 - Number of points unranked Hartford held No. 6 Duke below its scoring average in a 53-51 upset over the weekend. True, the Blue Devils had only played two games before then, but one was an impressive 77-68 comeback over then-No. 14 Oklahoma State in the season opener.

"For me, it's more about the process of dominance," said head coach Joanne P. McCallie before Duke's game against Hartford. "How dominant can Duke be? How tough can we be on that floor? I'm as interested as you are to find out and see what we're going to bring to the table."

Somehow managing a great win and a disappointing loss in the season's first four contests, we'll have to wait and see a little longer before it's clear exactly what Duke is capable of bringing to table.

For years, though, one of the knocks on women's basketball has been the lack of parity, with the first few rounds of the NCAA Tournament serving as a mere formalities as the juggernauts warmed up for the real contests deeper into the bracket. But a new trend is beginning to sweep across the sport, as three preseason top-ten teams in Duke, Maryland and Tennessee have fallen -- and, in Duke and Maryland's case, to unranked teams.

How much this will help the popularity of the sport is yet to be seen, but it is certainly a step in the right direction.

120 - Number of tackles Duke linebacker Michael Tauiliili has on the season. That's easily good enough for first in the ACC, and there are only two other players in the league who have even cracked the century mark. Cutcliffe has been pushing for the defensive captain to be considered for All-American honors all season, and he received some third-party support this weekend. More than once, ESPNU broadcasters Dave Armstrong and Larry Coker, the former head coach of Miami, voiced support for Tauiliil in regards to the national distinction. It would be the first Blue Devil to receive All-American recognition since 1989.

0 - Number of ACC teams ranked in volleyball's top-25 coaches' poll. Contrary to the ACC's dominance in lacrosse (men's and women's) and field hockey, volleyball is a decidedly West Coast sport, as every top-10 school is located west of the Mississippi River. Nevertheless, Duke is in position to capture its second conference title in three years with a win Tuesday night against Wake Forest and a North Carolina loss versus N.C. State Friday. The Tar Heels, who are the only team to receive any votes in the national poll with eight, split the home-and-home series with the Blue Devils.

Teasers:

Chante Black's points plus rebounds against Western Kentucky (Nov. 28) vs. Kyle Singler's points plus rebounds against Duquesne (Nov. 28) - Both players have established themselves as their team's leader so far. Both players are versatile post players who can shoot or take it to the rack. Both players are going up against inferior competition and could go off for big numbers this holiday weekend. Looking at the numbers, it's pretty even. Singler barely edges Black on points, averaging 18 points against her 17.8. But Black has a slightly larger advantage on the boards, hauling down 18.3 per game versus his 17. Whichever way this one falls, expect it to be close and the final tallies to be in the mid-30's.

Asack's passing yardage against UNC (Nov. 29) vs. Duke men's basketball score against Duquesne (Nov. 28) - This is tough, because obviously even a modest day out of Asack would make this comparison lopsided. But in two games, he has 82 yards with 12 completions and six interceptions. Through six games, the Blue Devils are averaging 81.8 points.

Wow, can I pick 'em or what?