The e-mails from fans criticizing the current Duke team typically latch onto one area where the Blue Devils unquestionably are lacking.
Fans of other schools question how Duke (25-2) can be ranked No. 1 after playing just two teams ranked in the current top 25 (No. 19 North Carolina and No. 23 St. John’s).
As Duke prepares to meet No. 24 Temple (21-5) at 7 p.m. tonight (ESPN2), that’s a fair and legitimate question.
The ABD (Anyone But Duke) crowd wants to know, if Duke was in the Big East, what would the Blue Devils’ record be? That’s an impossible question to answer.
When Duke lost at St. John’s on Jan. 30, the defeat appeared to expose a serious flaw for the Blue Devils and the ACC. At the time, first-year coach Steve Lavin’s team appeared to be on its way to a finish in the lower third of the Big East standings.
Now, though, St. John’s owns Big East wins over No. 4 Pittsburgh, No. 9 Notre Dame and No. 14 Connecticut. So it’s not accurate to say that Duke’s loss at Madison Square Garden proves that the Blue Devils would be roadkill in the Big East.
Here’s a better question to ask. Let’s imagine that the future of the planet depended on the NCAA tournament.
An invading alien army from another galaxy would spare the earth if you could correctly pick the one team that would win the tournament. Would anybody – even the most fervent North Carolina fan - pick a team other than Duke?
Let’s consider some other options:
- No. 2 Ohio State might have the best big man in the land, but Jared Sullinger is just a freshman and Thad Matta’s Buckeye teams (except for the one that had Greg Oden) have notoriously underachieved in the NCAA tournament.
- Except for 2008, No. 3 Kansas has performed below expectations under Bill Self in the NCAA tournament. The Jayhawks also just had their point guard, Tyshawn Taylor, suspended indefinitely for an unspecified team rules violation.
- No. 4 Pittsburgh and No. 5 Texas also have coaches who haven’t performed well in the NCAA tournament when you consider how much talent they’ve had.
- Regarding No. 6 Brigham Young and No. 7 San Diego State, do you really think the NCAA tournament winner is coming from the Mountain West Conference?
You get the picture. In the final analysis, nobody has two seniors who are as accomplished as Duke’s Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, and you need only look back to the last two seasons (with champions Duke and North Carolina) to see how important high-quality seniors are in the NCAA tournament.
Duke also has a coach in Mike Krzyzewski who has proven time and again that he knows how to win in March and April. Krzyzewski has enough talented pieces in place along with Smith and Singler to make a run in the NCAAs, as Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly all are contributing regularly. And the Blue Devils are defending and rebounding well, as they did at the end of last season.
The final four games of the regular season will test Duke more. The Blue Devils play at home tonight against a No. 24-ranked Temple team whose strengths also are defense and rebounding.
On Saturday, Duke visits a Virginia Tech team that also has veteran talent in Malcolm Delaney and Jeff Allen and is desperate for a high-profile win to enhance its NCAA tournament resume.
Duke’s home finale on March 2 will be against a well-coached Clemson team that also has NCAA tournament aspirations. And in the regular season finale, the Blue Devils will visit an extremely talented North Carolina team that gets better every week.
The schedule over the next 11 days will tell us a lot about whether Duke really is the No. 1 team in the nation. But as it stands now, it’s difficult to pick a team that’s more likely to win the NCAA tournament, even if injured freshman point guard Kyrie Irving doesn’t return for the Blue Devils.