|Duke looks good and is -- for now -- the best team in the country, as far as we're concerned. (US Presswire)|
NASSAU, Bahamas -- Duke senior Mason Plumlee understood the skeptics, fully comprehended those who questioned whether this Blue Devils team had enough to win an ACC title, never mind compete for a national title.
"We didn't have anyone, not one person -- including myself -- that was solidified coming into the season," he said.
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Less than three weeks into the season, Duke has quickly changed the national perception. Plumlee has quickly become a National Player of the Year candidate, possibly even the frontrunner, Quinn Cook has grabbed hold of the point guard duties, freshman guard Rasheed Sulaimon has been stellar on both ends of the court and both Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly have also been plenty productive and reliable.
Coach K's team went out and took down a young and talented Kentucky team in Atlanta and proved that was no fluke when it tore through the most potent field in modern-day early season tournament history by knocking off Minnesota, VCU and Louisville in successive nights down here in the Bahamas. No one has accomplished as much as the Dukies thus far, giving them every bit as much right to the No. 1 ranking as the Indiana Hoosiers.
"I have winning, tough kids," Coach K said after the 76-71 win over Louisville in the title game on Saturday night.
It's not a deep team. Duke's starters all averaged at least 32 minutes per game in the Battle of Atlantis, with Plumlee playing 36 in all three victories. Even Seth Curry, battling a sore leg and his status day to day for the remainder of the season, logged 32.7 minutes per contest.
It's not a team that's as talented as the one from a year ago, one that relied heavily on NBA lottery pick Austin Rivers to make virtually every offensive play. But this team is clearly superior.
Plumlee, Kelly and Curry are all seniors who have the ability to lead this team as a unit. The entire group is cohesive and it shows both on and off the court. Plumlee does most of the talking, but there's respect among the trio -- and is trickles down to the young guys. The dynamic simply never worked a year ago with Rivers coming in and immediately being deemed the go-to guy.
"The priority for every person on the team is winning first and foremost," Plumlee said.
Plumlee finished with 16 points and seven rebounds against the Cards and his evaluation was that it was his worst individual performance of the season. However, he played well enough -- and his the other four starters all did their part. Cook wound up winning tournament MVP honors after hitting the critical shot, a runner in the lane with 27.5 seconds left that gave Duke a 72-67 lead, along with four free throws in the final 13 seconds to ice the win. Kelly, Curry and Sulaimon all finished with 14 points.
Coach K may not admit it, but he was concerned whether Cook could handle the point guard duties this season. Just about everyone around the program was nervous after a dismal freshman season that featured far more lowpoints than highlights. There was some worry that Duke would be forced to go back to the Curry Point Guard Experiment -- which wasn't exactly a success story early last season.
But Cook has exceeded expectations thus far, beginning with his performance against Kentucky and carrying over in the Bahamas. Against two of the most tenacious and effective defenses in the nation, VCU and Louisville, Cook was sensational. He took care of the ball, got his teammates easy looks and scored when necessary.
"The main thing with Quinn is that he hasn't shown any weakness," Krzyzewski said. "He has a great face, a great demeanor. A leader has to look strong before he is strong. He has to look like a winner and act like a winner before he is a winner."
But now Cook is starting to become a winner at the college level -- and it's no surprise that this Duke team has done the same. Plumlee has always been a star waiting to erupt, Kelly seems to do everything well despite physical limitations, Curry shoots it as well as just about anyone and Sulaimon is already one of the nation's most versatile guards. That's a pretty good starting unit.
But let's face it: These guys are hardly overwhelming, not exactly loaded with future NBA stars.
"I don't think this team necessarily wins because of their talent," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after the loss. "I'm not denigrating their talent, but their system is outstanding. They never beat themselves."
Louisville didn't help its case, although the Cardinals were without their interior defensive stalwart Gorgui Dieng, who suffered a wrist injury against Missouri on Friday. Pitino's team missed key free throws down the stretch while Duke wound up making 23 of 27 from the charity stripe in the game.
Pitino wasn't nearly as frustrated with this loss against Coach K as the last time the two coaches met, in the East Regional Finals two decades ago when Christian Laettner hit The Shot to beat Pitino's Kentucky Wildcats. Obviously, the stakes were far greater. But it's more than that. Pitino realizes he has a chance to win a national title with this group, especially when Dieng -- who could have a broken wrist -- returns.
"I'm excited for the future of this team," Pitino said. "I can see great things, and I haven't always said that."
That's no surprise, though, as the Cards were a near-unanimous choice as one of the elite teams entering the season. Duke? Not so much. This was a team that some even predicted to finish third in the ACC behind N.C. State and North Carolina.
But that has changed in just three short weeks.