If you are anything like me, this week is something of a holiday for you.
Duke football plays a nationally-televised game against North Carolina Thursday night that is essentially for the Coastal Division title. And before that, men’s basketball gets its first real test of the season against No. 19 Michigan State Tuesday night. This year's Spartans, already dealing with a few injuries, might not be the title contenders of years past—especially after a weak opening performance against Navy—but any team coached by Tom Izzo is a dangerous one.
This year’s Blue Devils have looked nothing short of spectacular through their first two games against Presbyterian and Fairfield, winning by a combined 119 points. But—and I mean no disrespect to the Blue Hose and the Stags—Presbyterian and Fairfield are not exactly quality competition. Michigan State is.
When last year’s squad was put to an early test against a ranked opponent—Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid and the rest of the Jayhawks—they showed promise but many flaws in a 94-83 loss. The story of that team’s early season was that it could not find the right mojo to beat the top teams—Duke also lost to then-No. 4 Arizona two weeks later—and even struggled at times against mediocre competition. See a 91-90 victory against Vermont in Cameron and the subsequent pulmonary embolisms it caused.
But this Duke team is different.
Last year, the Duke offense was centered squarely on the shoulders of Jabari Parker, and on days when he was off, it showed. That team was also defined by a distinct inability to defend and a lack of size in the frontcourt—both of which doomed the Blue Devils throughout the season and culminated in the second second-round exit for Duke since my class came here in 2011.
This year, Duke has two things it has not had in a long time: a pass-first point guard to facilitate the offense and a true center who can impose his will on the low block both offensively and defensively.
In both contests thus far, Tyus Jones has shined and given us a taste of his prowess at distributing the ball on the court. Against Presbyterian, the Blue Devils racked up 30 total assists—just three shy of matching the school record—and followed that up with 22 dimes against Fairfield. Jones tallied 12 assists during the weekend, leading the team in both games.
With Jones focused on creating more than scoring, it has opened up the floor, and Jahlil Okafor isn't the only one benefitting from it. The 6-foot-11 freshman is averaging 18.0 points per game as a Blue Devil—impressive to say the least—but senior Quinn Cook and Okafor’s classmate Justise Winslow have gotten their fair share of buckets as well. Winslow led all Blue Devils in scoring against Fairfield with 18 points.
On the other half of the court, Duke held both Presbyterian and Fairfield well below 50 percent from the floor and below 15 percent from outside the arc, allowing just three successful treys total. The Blue Devils also caused 35 turnovers in those games.
After the game against Presbyterian, I received a text message from a friend who goes to West Virginia. The game happened to be on at one of the many local watering holes that are frequently attended by the Mountaineer faithful, and he thought he would weigh in on Duke's outlook for the season: “My god, you guys are going to be good this year.”
And—for once—I happen to agree with him right now. Duke looks formidable, and although there must be a few flaws hiding beneath the surface for this year’s team, none have reared their ugly heads just yet. And the flaws that plagued last year’s team do not seem to apply to this one. Despite its youth, this team looks well-prepared to face off with the best that college basketball has to offer.
Tuesday is the first real test for the Blue Devils and the first step toward proving this theory. Unlike last year, early-season indicators could translate into continued success.
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