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Thoughts from the Other Shade: A Tar Heel Looks at the Blue Devils

Two days ago, our esteemed Duke writer Alex Smith gave his take on this year’s Carolina team in advance of tonight’s big rivalry game. To bring this recurring feature full circle, we naturally had to take a look at this year’s Blue Devils squad from a UNC perspective and what makes Duke different than last year’s championship team.

At the tip-off to the 2010-11 college basketball season, Duke was viewed as a juggernaut playing in a land of also-rans. They were clear title favorites, with a slew of articles questioning whether they would even lose a game this year. However, somewhere between a devastating toe injury (words you don’t usually think go together naturally) and a 15-point loss to a middling Big East team, Duke went from behemoth to just merely “contender.” They seem to have lost of a bit of the shine off of them, as the media’s more interested in covering undefeated Ohio State, Jimmer Fredette or the battling powers in the Big East; but let’s not kid ourselves here - Duke is still a really, really good team. They have two fewer losses than they did at this point last year, and the argument can be made that this year’s squad is stronger in some areas than last year’s was, yet somehow it seems like neither the Duke fan base nor the media will consider that possibility. So what’s particularly different about this year’s iteration of the Blue Devils? Here are just a few observations from an admittedly biased Tar Heel fan: 

  • For a team that seems to have so much firepower on paper, the Blue Devils run a little too much of their offense through Nolan Smith for my liking. They have unbelievable pure shooters in Kyle Singler, Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry, but Smith is the only one who can be consistently counted on to beat his man off the dribble and either create his own shot or draw defenders away from other guys to get them open looks. This certainly is leading to some gaudy numbers for Smith - he’s on pace to become the first player to ever lead the ACC in scoring and assists - but leaves me wondering what happens when Smith has an off game or goes up against an elite defender that’s able to limit his options. However, since neither of those has happened yet to my knowledge, it’s not really fair to speculate too much on it but rather acknowledge that Nolan Smith has been playing really, really well. Still, it would be nice for Duke if they had Kyrie Irving back to share the burden of creating for other guys on the floor.
  • If their offense does have a weakness, it’s not the guys mentioned above, but the fact they don’t have a consistent threat in the post. The Plumlee brothers are certainly as athletic as advertised, but I can’t really think of one thing that either of them do exceptionally well (except maybe Mason’s defensive rebounding, where he seems to grab a lot of boards for them). They can create plays on the break, where they run well, but they don’t seem as dependable and unmovable as Brian Zoubek was his senior year, when he was pulling down offensive boards with regularity. (Side note: did anyone envision at this time last year that Duke fans would be pining this hard for Brian Zoubek someday???) This can be especially problematic when you have wings like Kelly and Singler who can rebound well when inspired but seem to prefer not to venture into the post, so hitting the glass becomes an even greater need for the Plumlees to fill. They really struggled in Duke’s first loss of the year at Florida State, where I think questions about Duke’s viability as a title team started coming into question because of the glaring problems on the inside.
  • Zoubek’s absence in the post also seems apparent on defense, where Duke can be taken advantage of by a strong frontcourt player like Miami’s Reggie Johnson, who was giving the Devils fits before falling into foul trouble. Unlike Duke teams past, the few times I’ve seen them this team’s interior seems to struggle with help defense, and when guards have been able to get by Irving/Thornton and Smith, they seem to have some success finding players in places left vacant by one of the Plumlees or Ryan Kelly shifting over at just the wrong time. However, they’re still the 7th-most efficient defense in the country, and overall they swarm the ball on the perimeter and seem keyed in on defense as a unit, so it’s not like these issues are glaring weaknesses - more like tiny openings in a suit of chain mail; it’s not going to be easy to wound them.
  • Are Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry less valuable playing for the same team? It’s a question I’ve found myself asking more than once watching Duke play - I’m curious if one would earn more minutes if the other didn’t play, and for rhythm shooters that value touches and shots, it could be a case of one guy becoming more dangerous if he didn’t have to look over his shoulder for the other guy coming in every time he missed a few shots. However, they’re both pretty deadly when they’re on, and more often than not Duke seems to have one of the two playing well.
  • Finally, and I will preface this by saying this is completely speculative and may seem absurd, but I do wonder about this Duke team’s mental toughness. Yes, they carry over just about everyone from a national championship squad but looking at their schedule, they haven’t played a team that’s likely to make the NCAA tournament since November, and while it’s not their fault that KSU and Michigan State have collapsed the way they have, both of those high-profile games came on neutral courts that don’t resemble anything like what Duke will see going on the road in a hostile environment in the ACC. (To that effect, the losses at FSU and St. John’s may have been a good wake-up call as Duke went into Maryland and annihilated the Terps a week ago.) But it certainly does make you wonder how much Duke has actually been tested this year, and how they’ll respond if and when that happens. 

Just as Alex wrote that tonight’s game would be a good barometer for how far UNC has come, it seems to me the game will function similarly for Duke, as they’ll be facing a legitimately talented team on the upswing. How well the Blue Devils play can really go a long way toward steering the minds of fans and the media about whether they truly are a team that can contend for the national title, or one that’s been cruising on superior talent just waiting to be exploited by the right matchup.