Blue Devils to battle Longhorns for No. 1 rank

When the preseason college basketball polls were released in early November, all eyes immediately turned to Dec. 10 and a game that would potentially pit the nation's top-two teams against each other.

That matchup is finally here.

Both No.1 Duke (8-0) and No. 2 Texas (8-0) have maintained their respective undefeated records to set up the first regular-season tilt between the nation's top-ranked teams since 1998.

The Blue Devils and Longhorns will square off at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the Meadowlands in New Jersey.

Duke and Texas spent all week downplaying the meaning of the early-season game, but it will nonetheless serve as an important barometer for two of the favorites to cut down the nets in Indianapolis in April.

"We were given a preseason rank of No. 2, and that's not something that we've earned," Texas head coach Rick Barnes said. "If you want to be a No. 1-ranked team in the country, I guess you have to beat a No. 1-ranked team in the country."

Despite holding top rankings, neither Duke nor Texas has looked invincible so far this season.

The Blue Devils survived Virginia Tech's late charge Dec. 4 with Sean Dockery's 40-foot buzzer-beater and snuck by ranked opponents Memphis and Indiana.

Like Duke, the Longhorns have also struggled in tough games.

Texas almost lost to West Virginia in the semifinals of the Guardians Classic Nov. 21 but was bailed out when its opponent missed free throws down the stretch. The Longhorns managed to pull away late against Iowa in the tournament finals for a nine-point victory.

Part of the adjustment for both teams has been integrating talent that did not play together last season.

Despite not dropping a game, Duke's offensive frustrations have been well-chronicled. The team has yet to fully integrate the hyped freshman class and has struggled to find a third scorer without sophomore DeMarcus Nelson.

"We're going to have a hard time, I think, on Saturday," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We're not that good.... We've got a lot of young guys with a lot of old guys. We just need to develop along with our pace and not let anybody else set that pace for us."

Texas is going through similar growing pains. Sophomore point guard Daniel Gibson, considered by many to be the top in the nation at his position, is still getting used to distributing to his two main offensive options, lanky center LaMarcus Aldridge and versatile wing P.J. Tucker.

Tucker, a Raleigh native who Krzyzewski said Duke did not recruit, sat out the second half of last season after being deemed academically ineligible. His return to the lineup elevates the Longhorns' athletic ability.

As Tucker was forced to the sidelines, Aldridge went down with a season-ending hip injury. Now healthy, the sophomore has emerged as one of the nation's top big men, averaging a double-double and more than two blocks per game.

With the return of Tucker and Aldridge, Barnes has asked Gibson-who is a better shooter than former Longhorn point guard T.J. Ford-to become more of a distributor rather than someone looking for his own shot.

"Daniel has become much more comfortable the past two games," Barnes said. "I just look at this group and think we're not even close to where we can be."

The thought of Texas even being ranked in the top five was far-fetched when Barnes left Clemson to take over a floundering program in Austin in 1998. Since then, the North Carolina native has made program a powerhouse.

Under Barnes, the Longhorns have increased their exposure by playing games around the country, including games like the one against Duke two seasons ago at Madison Square Garden. The Blue Devils won, 89-61.

"It's two totally different teams now," Barnes said. "We love going to the East coast, we think it's important for our program.... We know that this is Durham-North. That's ok."

Saturday's game across the Hudson River will be Texas's chance to show how much it has improved since the teams' last meeting. It will be Duke's opportunity to prove they are deserving of the No. 1 ranking.

"They're No. 2 in the country, they're very talented, they've got some great players," senior Lee Melchionni said. "It should be a hard-fought battle Saturday. I'm looking forward to it."


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