When Butler’s final shot just missed and Duke was crowned men’s basketball champion in 2009, everyone knew that the returning team would be ranked #1 coming into the pre-season. With 2 of their 3 top players returning and many younger players ready to step in, there was little question as to which team should start the season number 1. Now that the month of November is behind us, it’s time to ask the question, how good is the 2010-2011 Duke team?
The short answer is “very good.” Duke sprinted out of the gates, going 7-0 through the 1st of December. They have an average winning margin of 28 points. They have already beat two top-10 teams (Kansas State and Michigan State) and have shown they can win tight games, having one 2 games by a 4 point margin.
When the season began, Duke’s main hopes rested on the shoulders of the 2 returning scoring threats from last year: seniors Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. Neither has disappointed so far. Smith is averaging a team leading 16.9 points per game and 5.6 assists per game. Singler has averaged 16 points per game, 5.6 rebounds and is shooting 92% from the free throw line. Both players were touted as potential player-of-the-year winners, and both are playing up to the hype.
What has made Duke particularly strong thus far, though, is the contributions made by other players. Mason Plumlee has taken over the role as the main big man from Brian Zoubek. Mason Plumlee is a better offensive threat–he is currently averaging 11 points and 9 rebounds per game–but he lacks the shot-blocking ability that Zoubek had. Sophomore Andre Dawkins (10.7 ppg) and transfer Seth Curry (7.7 ppg) give Duke a three-guard look that is difficult to defend.
The most pleasant surprise of the season, though, is the play of freshman Kyrie Irving. Irving is co-leader with Nolan Smith in scoring and assists and he leads the team in steals. Irving put up a career high 31 against Michigan State, making him one of only four freshman at Duke to score 30 points in a game.
With all these weapons, Duke is a tough match-up for any team. But are they unbeatable? After the Michigan State loss, coach Tom Izzo said, “I think [Duke] is the best team in college basketball.” The best team, however, isn’t necessary an invincible team.
Duke’s three guard attack makes them susceptible to a team who has dominant inside play. Duke takes nearly 22 three-point shots per game (making 44%), so a cold shooting night could lead them into trouble. Duke also misses the fiery leadership Jon Scheyer. Smith and Singler may be all around better players than Scheyer, but he lifted Duke at key times in 2009, and Smith and Singler will have to prove they can do the same in 2010-2011.
No one should expect Duke to run the table, though it would not be surprising to find them in the Final Four once again. While Duke is currently the only team in the ACC in the Top 25, the ACC schedule is grueling. In the last month leading up to March Madness, Duke faces UNC twice and Virginia Tech once, and both of those teams are likely to be in the Top 25 at some point this season.
Every game the Blue Devils play will be the biggest game of the year for the opponent, and everyone will be gunning for them. Next, the Butler Bulldogs get a chance at revenge after falling just inches short of a Cinderella championship. For Duke, it’s another hurdle in a long race to defend their National Championship.