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November 14, 2012
Still Duke
Maybe the Blue Devils Really Were Underrated

by John Gasaway

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A little more than two weeks ago the preseason AP poll was released, and I said I thought my fellow basketball writers were underrating Duke by ranking them as the No. 8 team in the nation and more specifically as the No. 2 team in the ACC (behind North Carolina State).

I soon learned that when you use "Duke" and "underrated" in the same sentence, you get a reaction. I got a reaction. "Dook?! Underrated?!" Surely I was joking.

Hey, just because Duke is Duke, and just because they really were overrated for much of last season, doesn't mean Mike Krzyzewski's team can't be underrated. Coach K's team was arguably underrated -- even as a No. 1 seed -- heading into the 2010 NCAA tournament, and look what happened.

So, yes, it is at least possible for the Blue Devils to be underrated, and with their 75-68 win last night over No. 3 Kentucky in Atlanta, this Duke team has raised the question anew. Just how good are these guys? Based on a very small sample size (131 possessions over two games), the answer to that question is plain. Duke is very good.

Forget Plumlee (momentarily), Curry is "The Man."
I'm not entirely certain why the ratio between Seth Curry's importance to the Blue Devils and the amount of words devoted to him is so out of whack, but for some reason people are looking past the senior guard. That's a mistake. In Duke's first two games, Curry has been Coach K's featured scorer, taking 29 percent of the Devils' shots from the field during his minutes. That's a higher shot percentage than what Austin Rivers recorded last season, and in fact the last time we saw a Blue Devil carry this kind of load on offense Nolan Smith was attempting to function single-handedly as a combination of himself and (the injured) Kyrie Irving in 2010-11.

More important than his prominence within the offense, however, is the fact that Curry's been so effective. In two games he's made half his threes and, coincidentally enough, half his twos. This marks Curry's third season in Durham since transferring from Liberty, and it appears that he'll continue his personal trend of taking on more and more of the load on offense with each passing year. I don't suppose Curry will continue to make half his shots from the field for the duration of the season, but there's little doubt that he gives Krzyzewski a solid foundation for what is sure to be a perimeter-oriented offense.

Plumlee can prove Dan Dakich right -- if he can stay on the floor
Curry's been The Man in the first two games, and Duke is a good bet to shoot a lot of 3s this season, but the effectiveness of Coach K's perimeter-oriented attack rests in no small measure on the effectiveness of Mason Plumlee in the post. As a legitimate scoring threat down low, Plumlee gives Duke the floor spacing they need to get open looks./p>

During the Tipoff Marathon yesterday, my ESPN colleague Dan Dakich suggested that Plumlee may be even more talented than Indiana big man Cody Zeller, an assertion that quickly drew criticism. Clearly Zeller's body of work, even though he's just a sophomore, is superior to what Plumlee's done in his first three seasons. Still, based on the glimpses we've had of senior-year Plumlee in just two games, I wouldn't be so quick to dismiss Dan's assessment out of hand.

We already know Plumlee's an excellent defensive rebounder -- much better than Zeller, for one -- and that's been on display again at the outset of this season, as the senior has pulled down 27 percent of opponents' misses while he's on the floor. In two games he's also blocked 10 percent of opponents' 2-point attempts. It's early, of course, but if the senior can carry anything close to those two numbers over the course of the season, he will be marked as an outstanding performer on defense. That's important. Last season the only thing standing between Duke and a special year was a defense that was anything but special.

And on offense Plumlee, if anything, has been even better, draining (an unsustainable but amazing) 75 percent of his twos while taking 24 percent of the team's shots during his minutes. These numbers on both sides of the ball are uniformly monstrous, but the key words here might be "during his minutes." This is where Zeller does have an advantage, and it's a big one. Tom Crean can start a game relatively confident in the knowledge that his big guy will be available when he needs him. Krzyzewski can't say the same about Plumlee, who thus far on the young season is averaging exactly 5.0 fouls per 40 minutes. Perhaps younger brother Marshall Plumlee can help here, assuming the freshman recovers from the foot injury that currently has him on the sidelines. But for the time being, Mason Plumlee's foul count is a number worth tracking.

The next three weeks will tell us if Duke was really underrated
Tom Izzo hogs all the credit for scheduling tough opponents, but Coach K hasn't exactly stocked up on cupcakes this season. For starters don't look past this Sunday's home game against Florida Gulf Coast. (Yes, I'm serious.) The Eagles have already defeated one ACC team (Miami), and Andy Enfield's men may end up battling Mercer for the Atlantic Sun title before all is said and done.

After that game, the Blue Devils will go to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis over Thanksgiving weekend. Duke will open against Minnesota, and if they can win there they'll face the winner of Memphis vs. VCU. Assuming Coach K's team can get to the title game (a big assumption, in this field), they'll face either Louisville, Missouri, Stanford, or Northern Iowa. Finally, once they've run that gauntlet, the Devils will host Ohio State in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and then take on Temple in East Rutherford, NJ, on December 8.

That is one robust schedule, one that will tell us very clearly just how good Duke really is, and I'll be tracking the Blue Devils' performance every step of the way. In the meantime, though, mark me down as impressed by what I've seen so far from Curry, Plumlee, and the rest of Krzyzewski's team.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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