Duke has continued to show its growth over the month of December. Against beating a strong Iowa team in the Jimmy V Classic, Blue Devil fans got a glimpse of what this Duke team can become, a squad that is among the nation’s best on the defensive end with the talent to keep up with anyone on offense. After routing Maryland Eastern Shore with their first ever all-freshman starting five, the Blue Devils have a much-needed period of rest and practice. Then, Duke will turn its sights to ACC play, and by the end of the season, the Blue Devils will be the regular-season ACC champions.
As dominant as Duke has been in college basketball, in recent years this hasn’t always translated to ACC regular-season titles. The Blue Devils have only entered the ACC tournament as the top seed twice in the last 15 years, in 2010 and 2022. It is worth noting that the ACC recognizes the conference champion as whichever program wins the conference tournament, a title Duke has won five times in that 15-year stretch. Nevertheless, winning the regular season would be a major accomplishment in head coach Jon Scheyer’s inaugural season, and the Blue Devils have the tools to get it done.
The first element of this year’s race that benefits this young Blue Devil squad is the relative weakness of the conference. It seems like we say this every year just for the ACC to be well-represented late in the NCAA tournament, but the conference as a whole has been very underwhelming in nonconference play. The league only has two teams currently ranked in the top 25, No. 3 Virginia and No. 15 Duke. It doesn’t help the conference’s resume that it boasted the preseason No.1 team in North Carolina, just for it to fall out of the rankings before Christmas. The ACC is also home to the statistically worst Power Five team in Louisville, who has not won a game.
Duke is bound to have a stumble or two, but its conference schedule this year isn’t necessarily daunting. Some of the typical Blue Devil traps are present, such as playing N.C. State in PNC Arena, a place Duke has historically struggled. It will see rival North Carolina twice, a matchup that can always go either way no matter each team's ranking. But more than likely, the Blue Devils should be able to handle most of their conference games with relative ease, especially if they keep up their recent level of play. The most challenging contest remaining for Duke, and one that could decide the ACC regular-season title, will be its road game against Virginia Feb. 11. The Cavaliers will be tough as always, but the Blue Devils seem to be finding their groove, and their talent is starting to gel together very impressively.
A major development during conference play will be the progression of Duke’s freshmen. If the Blue Devils want to finish out with a dominant conference record, they are going to need big contributions from Dariq Whitehead. It seems like the freshman guard is improving every game: He turned in a solid performance against Iowa off the bench, tallying eight points, six rebounds and three assists before earning his first start in junior captain Jeremy Roach's absence. The forward flashed, recording 15 points, two rebounds, two assists and two steals. If Whitehead continues to increase his offensive output and hone his defensive talent, Duke can become one of the most potent offenses in the country while becoming even more stingy on the other end. Fellow freshman Kyle Filipowski has continued his dominant freshman season with four consecutive ACC Freshman of the Week honors, and Roach showed flashes of his March self against Iowa, going for 22 points. If the Blue Devils can put all the pieces together, they should be the No.1 seed in Greensboro this March.
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