For many people, college basketball season hasn't started yet. The sports world is focused on Notre Dame, the price of tickets to the SEC Championship game, how Johnny Manziel deserves the Heisman Trophy because of one marquee performance, and questions about how Gene Chizik turned out to be as awful as he did.
While flying under the radar, college basketball season has already brought us some exciting games and impressive performances. Through these early games, I don't think any team has been more impressive than Duke.
Yet, is this a good or bad thing for the Blue Devils?
So far, everything has gone right for Duke. They've defeated two teams ranked in the top 5, one of which in a game that was their third in three days. Seth Curry is nursing a leg injury and is unable to practice but has become much more efficient with his game. Ryan Kelly has developed into a solid defender and has worked on his offensive skills to become much more than a spot up shooter. Rasheed Sulaimon is bringing great energy and intensity to the team and plays with confidence within the flow of the game - an all-around improvement over Austin Rivers. Quinn Cook struggled in the first few games but has now become a terrific floor general and gives a Duke a playmaker at the point guard position. And Mason Plumlee is playing at a level the Cameron Crazies were dreaming about when he first arrived in Durham, dominating both ends of the floor and receiving early praise as a National Player of the Year Candidate.
In many ways, Duke fans couldn't be more excited. But a troubling thought lingers...is this the best Duke will be?
Aside from winning the NCAA Tournament (albeit a rather big exception) in 2010, Duke has struggled in postseason play over the past six years, causing many to wonder if Mike Krzyzewski struggles with having his team peak at the right time. There have been questions about whether or not Coach K uses his bench enough to help his starters stay fresh throughout the course of a full season. People also wonder if Duke's style of play and dependence on making outside shots hurts them against the physical teams they face in the NCAA Tournament.
I can't say I agree with those opinions, but Duke's first round defeat against Lehigh last year certainly didn't do anything to quiet the critics. Now, Duke is off to another good start but people will remain skeptical of this team until we get to March.
As Duke players and coaches would certainly agree, this team still has plenty of room for growth. Bench play has been nearly non-existent and this team could look totally different if Amile Jefferson, Josh Hairston, Marshall Plumlee, and Alex Murphy can become consistent contributors. Rasheed Sulaimon is playing more mature than a typical freshman, but you can expect that he will continue to improve, particularly with his shot selection. And as good as Quinn Cook's been, he is still an inexperienced point guard who is learning how to lead a team and play the college game.
The signs are all there for this to develop into a very good Duke team. They feature a unique mix of versatility, confidence, and experience, all aspects you typically look for in teams that have success in March.
It will be interesting to check back in four months to see if that development produces the results the Blue Devils are striving for.