To watch Duke on Saturday night was to watch a team that makes a lot of sense -- when it plays that way -- as a practical favorite for the 2020 national title.
The Blue Devils went into Syracuse and, though trailing early, flipped a switch and kept the Orange at arm's length in the second half. The final: 97-88. Duke improved to 18-3 overall and kept stride behind Louisville for the top of the ACC. At 8-2, the Blue Devils trail the Cardinals (who won at NC State on Saturday) by one game in the conference standings.
Had Duke lost against a Cuse team that was 5-1 in its past six games, it would have been somewhat understandable. Road game against a Hall of Fame coach with a team playing much better defense as of late.
Instead, Duke gave us a glimpse into its still-rising ceiling and reminded us why it's rightfully been placed at No. 1 or No. 2 in most predictive metrics for the better part of a month. Its 97 points were the second most this season for Mike Krzyzewski's team.
On an upset-dotted Saturday, Duke didn't flinch. Here's the key takeaways from what came out of central New York.
1. Vernon Carey Jr. is going to win national freshman of the year. Yeah, I think I gotta call it on the first day of February. I see you, Zeke Nnaji, Isaiah Stewart, Anthony Edwards and Onyeka Okongwu, but Carey has the best stats and plays most consistently for the best team.
Weirdly, he still isn't really getting his full due.
Maybe that changes in the coming week(s). On Saturday, the Duke center had a career-high 17 rebounds to go with 26 points to improve his season averages to 17.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 60.4% from 2-point range. He is doing this while averaging less than 25 minutes. He is efficient and, while maybe not unstoppable, certainly irrepressible. Carey again helped Duke get separation against an inferior opponent and showed why he needs to start being discussed among the most impressive Duke freshmen in program history.
This is not an overstatement. He's outstanding and clearly the team's most valuable player. He came into the evening ranked No. 3 in KenPom.com's player of the year rankings. After the game, he bumped up to 2, only behind Iowa's Luka Garza. A glass-eater and a magnet for drawing fouls, Duke would be an entirely different and inferior team if he was not on the roster.
Duke had five players score in double figures. Cassius Stanley and Tre Jones both played well. But Saturday night exhibited as well as maybe any game this season why Carey is the planet around which all others on this roster orbit.
2. Syracuse's NCAA Tournament hopes dim ever more. Ranking 60th in the NET at the start of Saturday, the Orange had a Quad 1 opportunity on their home floor but were unable to get the kind of win that would have potentially steered their season northward. This loss puts the Orange at 13-9 with a 6-5 mark in the ACC. Syracuse is 3-4 in Quad 1 games, but alarmingly just 1-5 against Quadrant 2 opponents. Home games forthcoming against Wake Forest and NC State, while obviously winnable, won't beef up the résumé. Syracuse going from 8-7 on Jan. 10 to 13-7 by Jan. 25 had SU backers hopeful that this season could be salvaged. Instead, it looks like the NIT will be the landing spot for the third time in six seasons.
3. The ACC is collectively having its worst season in decades. Saturday's assortment of results dropped these teams below .500 in league play: NC State, Virginia Tech, Clemson. Syracuse's loss pushed the Orange to just a game above .500 in the ACC. Virginia was fortunate to be idle this weekend, holding at 6-4 in the league. FSU's win at Virginia Tech, Duke's win at Cuse and Louisville's win at NC State only hammered home that there is a chasm between the top of this league and all others.
And on Saturday, the ACC slipped to sixth in KenPom's conference power rankings. That's behind the SEC and Pac-12, the former which does not have a top-30 KenPom team and the latter of which might fail to get any teams seeded No. 1, 2, 3 or 4 in the NCAA Tournament. KenPom's database goes back to 1997, and only once since then has the ACC finished as low as sixth in its conference power rankings: 2012-13.
It sent just four teams to the Dance that season, with Duke and Miami each getting a No. 2 seed and UNC and NC State landing on the 8 line. Something similar is looking likely. Duke, Louisville and Florida State all have shots to compete for the top two lines, while maybe only Virginia has a practical shot of getting that fourth bid. It's been an awkward season for the best conference, historically, in college basketball.