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Lessons from Duke basketball's strong start

Duke’s early-season success is a sign of head coach Mike Krzyzewski preparing his team well, Cusack writes.
Duke’s early-season success is a sign of head coach Mike Krzyzewski preparing his team well, Cusack writes.

The Blue Devils should be the No. 1 team in the country today.

That’s what an undefeated start highlighted by two wins over the preseason top five should mean, especially when the top team, Indiana, bases its claim on tenuous wins against Georgia and a then-unranked Georgetown team.

College coaches already have little incentive to add top competition to their non-conference schedules beyond the guaranteed money that comes with early-season tournaments—Duke made a reported $2 million last week in the Bahamas—and this only adds to that trend.

For a sport facing a nationwide attendance crisis, it’s headed in the wrong direction. In truth, though, the whole argument doesn’t matter. It’s still November, and thankfully there’s no college basketball BCS-equivalent to make the Associated Press all-important.

And just because the polls don’t mean anything now doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to learn from what we saw over the weekend in the Bahamas. Here is a list of what’s important moving forward.

1. Once again, Coach K has the best prepared team of the fall

With Saturday’s win against Louisville, the Blue Devils clinched their sixth straight fall tournament title, a run of 23 wins, including six against ranked opponents. The 2012 Battle 4 Atlantis was arguably the toughest of them all, featuring a field that statistician Ken Pomeroy wrote “has to be one of the most difficult in the history of preseason tournaments.”

The unblemished record is a testament to how well Krzyzewski and his staff prepare before the season actually starts. Despite the lineup juggling that we’ve seen over the last few weeks, the Blue Devils already seem to know their roles on both sides of the court—though so far most of the team has been relegated to the bench.

Duke ranks 337th in bench minutes so far in Division I, but is that really an issue? I don’t think it’s cause for major concern—the 2010 NCAA championship team ranked 315th. Plus, Marshall Plumlee’s return will likely mean fewer minutes for brother Mason and Ryan Kelly.

2. Quinn Cook finally looks healthy

The most commonly cited concern heading into the season was whether or not Duke could find a consistent point guard on offense and defense. That debate is over.

Cook followed up his exceptional play against Kentucky with three more solid performances in the Bahamas. He was at his best Saturday night, when he scored Duke’s last eight points in the final 1:14, earning tournament MVP honors. If this team goes as Cook does, as was suggested in the preseason, the Blue Devils will go far.

3. Rasheed Sulaimon sure doesn’t look like a freshman

After two seasons dominated by coverage of precocious first-years, it’s surprising to see Sulaimon get lost amidst talk of Seth Curry’s shin splints and the rise of Quinn Cook.

The freshman is averaging about three points fewer than Austin Rivers was at this point last season, albeit a small sample size, but his impact is undeniably similar on the offensive end. He’s even better than Rivers was on defense, as evidenced by his three steals against Louisville.

4. Hitting the glass

The biggest issue for Duke until Marshall Plumlee is healthy will be corralling errant shots that bounce away from Mason Plumlee. Mason was dominant all throughout the Battle 4 Atlantis, no more so than his 20-point, 17-rebound performance against a rotating trio of Minnesota big men on Thanksgiving.

But the Blue Devils are giving up second-chance looks on 35.6 percent of their opponents’ misses. There’s no easy solution to be found on a team with only one healthy true post player, but the Blue Devils have never missed Brian Zoubek so badly.

5. Post-tropics hangover?

Last season’s matchup with Ohio State came on the heels of a successful yet exhausting trip to Maui. Part of the reason Duke chose the Bahamas—and why the Battle 4 Atlantis will soon overtake the Maui Invitational’s status as top early-season tournament—is its relatively close location. Still, the Blue Devils have two fewer days to recover than they did last season, and Curry’s legs surely need all the rest they can get after three games in 50 hours.

But who knows, maybe a third win over a top-five team still won’t be enough to unseat the Hoosiers.


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