Everyone keeps saying it. "Duke's not invincible. They'll lose a game or two." Everyone says it, but apparently no one really believes it.
There aren't too many teams over the past few years who could lose their most productive player (Kyrie Irving) to injury and maintain not just their No. 1 ranking, but their unanimous No. 1 ranking in the following week's polls. Not one voter felt the need to drop the post-Irving Blue Devils behind even the likes of Ohio State or Kansas.
Duke's fans agree with the pollsters. When Michigan State came to town, nervous Cameron Crazies were hard to find. Now, without a single team currently ranked in the top 25 remaining on the schedule (you're reading that correctly), apprehension's even harder to find in Durham. Winning has become an afterthought; the Blue Devil faithful have taken to complaining about games being close.
True, Duke's on-court performance hasn't given much reason for fear. According to Ken Pomeroy's win probabilities, even at the Blue Devils' "lowest" point of the season (early in the second half of a neutral-floor contest vs. Butler) this team had a two-in-three chance of leaving the court with a victory. At every point during every other game this year, Duke's chances of winning have been even better.
And yet I for one believe what everyone merely says. Duke really isn't invincible.
During Miami's 74-63 loss at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Sunday night, Reggie Johnson absolutely smoked the Duke defense. Foul trouble held him to four minutes in the first half, so his barrage didn't put the game in doubt -- maybe that's why no one seems to care. But Johnson scored 22 points on ten field goal attempts, turned the ball over once, and grabbed five offensive rebounds in just 23 minutes.
With Johnson in the game, Duke scored 0.89 points per possession and allowed 1.05. With Johnson out of the game, Duke scored 1.25 points per possession and allowed 0.67.
Read that first line again.
Now, I'm not about to sit here and tell you that Miami would have beaten Duke if Johnson had been able to stay on the floor. The Canes shot 5-of-14 on dunks and layups with Johnson out of the game, and Duke was just 2-of-9 on threes and 5-of-14 on two-point jumpers with Johnson on the floor. Those percentages would not have held for the whole game. (Although I will point out that Johnson's presence in the middle certainly made it much easier for the Hurricanes to play tight on shooters, and the Plumlee brothers, Miles and Mason, never made them pay. Or weren't allowed to -- Miles figured out how easy it was to beat that matchup zone with alley-oops but he never got the ball).
This isn't about Miami and whether they can beat Duke. This is about the type of player Reggie Johnson is and how, if the Hurricanes' other four starters weren't the type of players to combine for an effective FG percentage of 25, this would have been a totally different game.
Here's what college basketball writers don't seem to realize about last year's title run by Duke. Despite all the complaints about the Blue Devils not having a big man, Mike Krzyzewski's team finished the year in the top ten nationally in offensive rebounding percentage. Not to mention Brian Zoubek was as good as anyone at guarding a true grind-it-out load of a big man like Johnson. You don't necessarily need to be able to score in the post -- points count the same coming from anyone -- and the Zoubek-Lance Thomas-Plumlee-Plumlee quartet could defend any big man around.
But that was 2010. For all the positives that the Plumlees and Ryan Kelly bring to the table (and they do just about everything better than Zoubek except rebound), they simply don't have the bulk to make an opposing big man's life too difficult.
Duke has run up against only one other true big man with real skill this season: Kansas State's Curtis Kelly. Kelly put up 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting in just 25 minutes, but, as was the case with Johnson, nobody cared because Jacob Pullen and Rodney McGruder meanwhile shot a combined 4-of-22.
If Duke runs into a team with a true big man and a supporting cast that can simply hold its own in the backcourt (an easier task with Irving gone, though just as certainly not an easy one), the Blue Devils could lose even when playing well. Outside of Johnson, the ACC presents Virginia's currently injured Mike Scott, NC State's Tracy Smith, and Maryland's Jordan Williams. In all likelihood UVA and the Wolfpack don't have the manpower to stick with the Duke backcourt -- the Blue Devils would have to play a subpar game to really be endangered by either of them. But with a defense ranked sixth in the nation by kenpom.com, the Terrapins may have a shot.
Then come March and, Duke fans trust, April. Kansas (the Morris brothers), Washington (Matthew Bryan-Amaning) and especially Ohio State (Jared Sullinger) most certainly fit the profile I've outlined here. I'm not sure any of these teams are better than the Blue Devils. But it may be time to start entertaining the notion seriously.
Drew Cannon is a college student who wrote three of the conference previews, as well as a really nifty piece called "When Top Prospects Go Mid-Major," for the College Basketball Prospectus 2010-11.
Drew Cannon is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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