Michigan State, 9:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 1 in Cameron Indoor Stadium; Butler, 3:15 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 4 in East Rutherford, N.J. Both games on ESPN.
A Duke loss to either Michigan State or Butler would be an upset, sure, but not altogether surprising: The Spartans have an excellent pair of senior guards who could battle against Kyrie Irving’s collegiate inexperience, and the Bulldogs need to shake off that championship-sized chip against the team that put it there. What’s more, Butler and Michigan State have a lot to lose by, well, losing: Michigan State slid from No. 2 to No. 6 nationally with a loss against unranked Connecticut last week, while Butler’s already dropped two this season. Duke should beat both of these teams, but don’t discount the Devils if they don’t.
Two nights before Thanksgiving, Duke’s freshman point guard Kyrie Irving made his proper ESPN debut in front of a sea of royal purple in Kansas City’s Sprint Center. The stage was the championship of the annual O’Reilly Auto Parts College Basketball Experience Classic, with the top-ranked Blue Devils facing their first ranked team of the season, the No. 4 Wildcats of Kansas State. Duke didn’t take long to dominate the regional favorites, limiting Kansas State’s star guard to just one made field goal and securing a 10-point-plus lead by the third television timeout.
The first half in the Midwest was good to Irving, a sprightly freshman”arguably as good as any guard who’s played in New Jersey,” his high school coach once said, putting him alongside Duke great Bobby Hurley. In the 17 minutes he played in the opening half, he scored 12 points with two steals and four assists and only one turnover. He beat Kansas State’s guards off the dribble and drew fouls in the paint, making each of his six free throws in the first half. Athletic and assured, he looked like a star. “Oh, they’re going to love him in Dure-ham,” perennial Duke booster Dick Vitale proclaimed perhaps a half-dozen times from the sidelines, early and often.
Mispronunciation excepted, Vitale is right about Irving and the Blue Devils as a whole this year when he notes that if college basketball fans learned anything from the downfall of the UNC Tar Heels last season, it’s that national champions (even with returning starters and an abundance of ballyhooed freshmen, all coached by a legend) are fallible. But in front of their biggest audience yet, Dukefreshman guard, rotating pool of big men, suffocating defense and allgave Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski his 800th win at Duke. The Devils looked like the sort of team that could become only the second to win back-to-back NCAA titles since Duke did it in 1992ready for the nation, ready for a repeat, ready to make Krzyzewski the most winning Division I coach in college basketball history.
But they’re not perfect, not yet. Just before the end of the first half, Irving was looking for one last defensive stand. He backpedaled near half-court, where he came to a sudden stop and drew contact from one of Kansas State’s three starting guards. Irving picked up his second foul of the game with an obvious errant block. It was a mistake of freshman zeal, an energetic mishap that gave Kansas State an unnecessary point from the free-throw line. Perhaps that seems like a pittance, especially with a nine-point lead, but Irving’s silly foul continued to cost his team. With six minutes left in the second half, Irving spent three minutes on the bench with four fouls, leaving the backcourt in the plenty capable hands of senior Nolan Smith. The Devils remained in control, maintaining their lead around 13 points. But they didn’t stretch the gap until Irving returned.
Those are the sorts of relatively minor growing pains Duke will have to handle throughout the season if a trophy is in this team’s future. Duke lost three senior starters after last season’s national championship victory against Butler; if they’ve got a foible, it may be inexperience. Indeed, Duke is more talented this year than it was last year. A healthy Mason Plumlee has stepped into his role as Duke’s versatile big man, nabbing 12 rebounds and 25 points in a tough win over Marquette. He can dribble, pass and shoot the three, and so far this season he’s behaving as if he knows where he needs to be on both ends of the floor. Plumlee fouled out early during Duke’s dismantling of Colgate, and that actually seemed like a good sign: Plumlee is finally ready to play physical, intense, relentless basketball as a Blue Devil. His older brother, Miles, has struggled early this season, now serving as Duke’s sixth manas much a comment on Duke’s squad depth as his own low numbers.
This Duke backcourt is essentially a faster, sleeker version of Schmingler, the triumvirate of Smith, Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler that romped through the NCAA Tournament. Irving has stepped assuredly into Scheyer’s starting position with added agility. National Player of the Year candidate Singler looks stronger in the chest, too, as proven by how he’s bullied through the lane several times early this season.
What’s more, sophomore backups Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry look ready to score this season; in just six games, they’ve combined for 26 three-pointers, nearly half of the Devils’ total. Ryan Kelly seems not only to have gained muscle in the offseason (as in, he looks mostly like a different person than the gawky, inconsistent freshman we saw last year), but he seems to have gained confidence, too. He’s started every game but the first this season; with that decision, he’s bolstered both his outside shot (five of seven from beyond the arc) and his ability to recirculate the ball out of the paint.
Starting with their domination of Princeton in Durham in early November and ending with a fifth Duke title at Reliant Stadium in Houston on April 4, Duke has the capability and capacity to win 40 games this yeara feat that would require them to be the first undefeated team since the 1975–76 Indiana Hoosiers. But Duke doesn’t have to remain undefeated or win any championship for this season to be a historic one. After last week’s win against Oregon, Krzyzewski had won 874 games as a college basketball coachtwo fewer than Adolph Rupp, five fewer than Dean Smith and 28 fewer than all-time leader Bob Knight. A disappointing season for Duke would end in the Sweet 16 after a few regular-season losses and an ACC championship (because those, as any demonstrative UNC fan will tell you, are the kind Duke wins best). That might still be enough to give Krzyzewski the career victories title, but don’t expect the call to be so close. Michigan State and radical improvements by several ACC schools might be the only things left standing between Duke and a No. 1 seed in late March. And those opponents seem to be nothing a few of the Plumlee Brothers’ alley-oops that have been so common this season can’t handle.