ESPN's Pat Forde, CBS' Gregg Doyel and The Sporting News' Mike DeCourcy all made the trek to West Lafayette, Ind. Tuesday to get their glimpse of the No. 4 Blue Devils, and they all came away impressed enough to extol the virtues of this year's team. And some even felt that Duke could be the foil to North Carolina's national title plans.
"So don't get too cocky, Carolina. Duke is back," Forde wrote. "Duke is back with one of the most precious commodities in today's transient college basketball: experience. Duke is back with an eight-man core rotation that features two seniors, four juniors, two sophomores and zero freshmen—a throwback rotation to the olden days when rookies waited their turn. Duke is back without a powerhouse player in the middle, but with so many players who can do so many things that it can make up for that deficiency. Duke is back with a poised group that can saunter into an old-fashioned Midwestern snake pit, feel the noise press against its ears and smirk in response."
Not surprisingly, most of the columns focused on the Blue Devils' newfound experience. Forde was alone, though, in wondering how Duke—Duke!—could have crept up on the rest of the country, especially from its post in the top 10. "This week Duke rose to No. 4 in the rankings—but on the buzz meter, Duke might as well have been Davidson," he wrote. "Except no Blue Devil was getting anywhere near the pub accorded to Stephen Curry. Which tells you how weird things had gotten."
There's a reason things have gotten weird. College basketball attention now revolves around recruiting and returning starters from dynamite teams. The Blue Devils' recruiting class was meager—it's become relatively clear that Elliot Williams and Miles Plumlee won't be part of the eight-man rotation, at least not yet—and Duke was hounded by the wrong type of offseason publicity after it lost in the NCAA Tournament's first weekend for the second straight year. The redemption narratives were saved for a team eight miles down the road, and Mike Krzyzewski's Olympic triumph (and Greg Paulus' demotion) dominated the Blue Devils' share of the press. Sure, we heard that Nolan Smith was markedly better and Kyle Singler beefed up in the offseason, but it's almost as if the media forgot about Duke's 22-1 start last season or, of course, its prior history. This is, after all, Duke, and not Davidson.
But more importantly, everyone knew the Blue Devils would return eight players and almost the entire starting lineup. It's an odd shift, then, that this team can be considered a surprise, when just a year ago, any loss was a flop, just another example of an underachieving team propped on its prominent history and praised by television's talking heads. Not so much this year, but that shouldn't be the news in December after a win over a top-10 team—it could have been the preseason storyline, too.
Doyel took a decidedly different tone in his column, claiming that the No. 1 Tar Heels are on a different level than every other team in the country, but that's not a bad thing. It gives hope to all the peons, and Duke might be the best of the rest.
"There is North Carolina—and there is everybody else," Doyel wrote. "Like these teams.... Duke doesn't have a point guard or a center or a true superstar, but even with those holes, Duke is going to beat a lot of teams this season because Duke is going to beat up a lot of teams this season. The Blue Devils have always played hard for Mike Krzyzewski, but they've rarely played this physical. And I think that's related to the talent level. Without a lot of NBA pretty boys, Duke is a junkyard dog of a team, and it gnawed on Purdue for 40 minutes. That's why Duke could go a long way, maybe even all the way. Because it plays hard—and because it won't have to play anybody great, not in the NCAA tournament anyway, not unless it finally runs into the Tar Heels in the Final Four collision to end all collisions."
TSN's DeCourcy examined five parts of the game, pointing out Jon Scheyer's versatility, Duke's defense and experience and Gerald Henderson's ability to control a game without scoring. Astute point on Henderson, even if we're not sure we agree entirely—with the exception of one half against Southern Illinois in Madison Square Garden, Henderson hasn't performed up to the standard many set for him, and the 20-point breakout against the Salukis was such a tantalizing taste of what he's capable of.
"Henderson's aggressive approach to this game empowered the Blue Devils' attack," he wrote. "Purdue has no one as athletic as Henderson; no one in college basketball does. His overwhelming athleticism can work for Duke the way Hasheem Thabeet's astonishing size works for UConn. Henderson wasn't uniformly brilliant. He shot 1-of-8 from the field, and he had a few lapses of attention, which is a common problem for him. His defense was essential, though, as he frequently was available as a help defender—his two blocks were ridiculous—and disrupted the Boilermakers with his quickness."
Feel free to correct us if we're wrong, but none of the columns address the water cooler issue in these parts: Sure, it's a nice win for Duke, but what if Purdue isn't as good as advertised?
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