Last March, with essentially an identical roster minus two NBA first-round draft picks, the Duke Blue Devils walked off a court in Greensboro, N.C., as a No. 2 seed that had just fallen to 15th-seeded Lehigh. North Carolina fans were scattered throughout the arena, soaking in the Blue Devils' suffering and high-fiving the Lehigh players.
After losing Austin Rivers and Miles Plumlee to the league, Duke's remaining core could be described not as unimpressive, but typical. There were holdovers. There were shooters. The legendary coach remained. But the foundation — Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry, Quinn Cook and Ryan Kelly — had not delivered in past seasons (given, Kelly was injured versus Lehigh) so what gave them a shot against loaded rosters like Kentucky and Louisville during this season's non-conference schedule?
Well, of all the college basketball coaches in the country, perhaps no other man gives his team a better chance to win than Mike Krzyzewski — and his experienced squad has thus far capitalized on his principles. Duke is beyond reproach as the No. 1 team in the country right now, knocking off three 2012 Final Four teams already (Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State) en route to a 14-0 record and many surprised faces. How can a career 55-percent free throw shooting center, a one-legged scorer, unproven point guard and a grown man named after a trash bird really be elite?
This Duke team follows a trend we should be used to by now: Krzyzewski's teams enter each and every season as prepared as any team in the country, and it takes a few months for most to catch up. The same thing happened last season before the Blue Devils lost four games in ACC play. There's a few differences this season — the Blue Devils finally have consistent point guard play with Cook and freshman Rasheed Sulaimon has provided a needed boost — but the one to pay attention to, strangely, is the middle Plumlee brother.
Mason Plumlee is firmly entrenched in the National Player of the Year race after kicking off his senior campaign averaging 17.7 points and 11.4 rebounds per game, giving Krzyzewski his first consistent offensive presence in the post since Shelden Williams and first legitimate national POY candidate since J.J. Redick was raining down 3-pointers in Cameron Indoor. With Plumlee manning the paint, this Duke team is not near as reliant on long-range shooting as in past seasons; instead, locking down on defense once again and torching opponents with a balanced attack.
Duke is not the most talented team. But, as always, don't bet your paycheck against Coach K.
FIVE THOUGHTS ON THE FIRST HALF
1. If forced to answer right away, my early national championship prediction would likely come from the state of Kentucky — but it's not John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats teams, which has suffered through some growing pains. Louisville, on the other hand, looks terrifying. One of TSL's preseason Final Four selections, the Cardinals are smothering opponents defensively (allowing just 84.1 points per 100 possessions, tops nationally), and in an NCAA Tournament that is not likely to feature a bumper crop of point guards that could prove the difference. Coach Rick Pitino has talent to spare and a talented, "anxiety attack waiting to happen" in guard Russ Smith, who is in the early running for the Wooden Award. Kentucky could quickly become the basketball equivalent to the state of Alabama for football.
2. The Big 10 was a laughing stock in football this season, but its basketball teams have quickly returned certain bragging rights to Jim Delany. In past seasons, we've seen conference apologists battle over which is the best in the business — Big East, ACC, Big 12 all staked their claims — but there is no argument this season. With five teams in the top 15 of the AP Poll, the Midwest has risen. Michigan and Indiana are elite, while Illinois and Ohio State have the talent to beat anyone on any given night. And what the hell, Minnesota? Out of nowhere, Tubby Smith has staked his claim as the frontrunner for the National Coach of the Year with a 15-1 record and a No. 8 position in the poll. The Golden Gophers' only loss came to Duke, and with a balanced team and three wins over ranked teams, Smith & Co., fill out the conference's depth quite nicely.
3. The NCAA's mangling of two high-profile eligibility cases marred the early schedules for two of college basketball's better players: Myck Kabongo and Shabazz Muhammed. While it is extremely out of character for the NCAA to mess these types of things up, slow-playing a young man's college career and holding out Kabongo for an entire season (since reduced to 23 games) after suffering a significant leak in its own investigation process. It can only be chalked up as two more cracks in the NCAA's amateurism facade.
4. NBA teams have no reason to "Lose For (Fill In The Blank)" this season, as not one college basketball player has established himself in what looks to be a down draft class. Stop looking for an Anthony Davis or Kevin Durant or Blake Griffin in this pool of talent. They aren't there. Take a gander at the top players in the national POY vote: Plumlee, Michigan's Trey Burke, Creighton's Doug McDermott. That's not transcendent talent there. Now, there are some players to keep an eye on, as the season progresses: Kansas' Ben McLemore — an athletic scoring guard, whom I saw firsthand in Atlanta and walked away extremely impressed — and UNLV freshman Anthony Bennett, who is manhandling opponents at 18 years of age. But, so far, nobody is taking over the sport.
5. Florida State and North Carolina are two of the biggest disappointments in college basketball. There's just too much talent, especially perimeter talent, for these two teams to share nine losses between them, including letdowns to South Alabama, Mercer, Auburn and Virginia. The good news: There are some quality wins on the resume. The bad? The Tar Heels and Seminoles play each other on Saturday, and the loser will likely be left to pick up some major pieces. Standouts like guard Michael Snaer (FSU) and James Michael McAdoo (UNC) need to produce more versus quality competition for their respective teams, as the overall quality of the ACC is suffering along with them. More good news: At least it isn't the SEC.
KEEP AN EYE ON…
Brandon Paul, Illinois: The Illini scorer has experienced an up-and-down career in Champagne, but he's grown exponentially as a player this season and headlines the No. 12 team. Scoring in double figures in all 17 games so far, Paul, who has dropped at least 20 points on four ranked opponents thus far, is in the early running for First Team All-American honors.
Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens, VCU/Butler: The two brightest young coaching stars in the business are at it again. With VCU and Butler once again wreaking havoc on major conference teams (North Carolina, Indiana, Alabama), both programs are basic locks to be NCAA Tournament nightmares come Madness time. Smart's team, per the usual, is locking down defensively (ninth nationally in efficiency), while Stevens has shooters to spare. Mark your calendars when these two new Atlantic 10 foes square off on March 2.
Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse: The point guard-in-waiting at Syracuse turned out to be a star. The sophomore leads the country with 9.6 assists per game and has coach Jim Boeheim's team, despite losing multiple pieces to last year's Orange puzzle, clicking offensively. Syracuse looks to be one of the teams to beat in the tourney.
Jamaal Franklin, San Diego State: So, there's this dunk. Never forget that. But there's also the fact that Franklin, a super-athletic junior guard, is averaging 17.4 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game this season to carry the 16th-ranked Aztecs. In fact, only 10 other players nationally have been utilized on a greater percentage of their respective teams than Franklin (32.05) and he's still producing at a high level.
Mark Few: The question is annually posed this time of year: When will Gonzaga finally break through? When will the trademark mid-major of college basketball follow in the footsteps of George Mason, VCU and Butler? Well, Few might have his most talented team ever in Spokane. With Elias Harris, Kevin Olynyk, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell on the floor, Few is coaching his team to national relevance — the Zags are ranked ninth right now — once again.
BIG BLUE, BIG DREAMS
Before this bumper crop of talent enrolled at Michigan, the most gifted and productive player John Beilein ever coached in Ann Arbor was Manny Harris, who after two seasons is already out of the NBA. That's not meant as a shot at or an indictment of Harris, who was a excellent college player, but rather to provide some perspective on how successful Beilein has been at Michigan (and every other stop) sans elite talent.
He's 400-252 in Division I stints at Canisius, Richmond, West Virginia and now Michigan, leading each school to NCAA Tournament appearances. His offensive system, an intricate system of cuts and screens, is as efficient as they come. And now, he's got the players to run it just how he wants it.
Finally, after 34 years of coaching, Beilein has top-tier talent. And it's paying off.
Led by potential All-American point guard Trey Burke, who is averaging 18.2 points per game and holds the country's 12th-best assists-to-turnover ratio, Michigan's offense is a well-oiled machine that has produced a school-record 16-0 start. That's right, the Fab Five didn't pull that off. But the most talented squad to suit up in the maize and blue since the Fab Five did. For its efforts, Michigan is the No. 2 team in the country.
Beilein's offense is averaging 122.7 points every 100 possessions, which is by far the best mark in the country.
His 2012 recruiting class could potentially go down as one of the most successful in program history, as son-of-NBA-star Glenn Robinson III, post player Mitch McGary and shooter Nik Stauskas (52.3 percent 3-point shooter) have all effectively complemented Burke's skills. Add in sophomore Tim Hardaway Jr. and it can be scary at times. That's a ton of youth there, but they are already getting the job done. Now, it goes without saying that Burke's return to college was the biggest boost for this season's campaign; however, if Beilein can keep drawing in these types of recruiting hauls to Ann Arbor, Michigan may no longer play second fiddle in its own state.
Beilein with talent is dangerous. And, by association, so is Michigan this season.