Duke lost at home to Virginia, yes, but nation's most talented team is actually improving

You could certainly look at Duke's 65-63 home loss Saturday to Virginia and find all sorts of alarming elements to frame as reasons why this Duke team -- the most talented team in the country -- is bound to fall short come March.

First and foremost were the turnovers. Duke was hemorrhaging turnovers all game. A team that averages 12.1 turnovers a game had 16 on Saturday against the nation's toughest defense. The second-youngest team in the country (only Kentucky is younger) had its freshmen making all sorts of mistakes: Point guard Trevon Duval was sloppy at times and electric in others, as seems to be his M.O. this season. He had five turnovers, the same number as the entire Virginia team. Wendell Carter Jr. had four. Gary Trent Jr. had three.

Another alarming element was, once again, this team's over-reliance on stud freshman and potential No. 1 pick Marvin Bagley III. Bagley showed Saturday why he's going to be an absolute superstar in the NBA. He scored 30 points on 13 of 18 shooting, and he made two 3s, including one in the final minute that gave Duke a fighter's chance at a comeback. Bagley also had 14 rebounds and only a couple turnovers.

The rest of the team? Ugh. Non-Bagley Blue Devils shot 14 of 38, or 36.8 percent, from the field, and went 2 of 11 from 3. Grayson Allen, the team's lone senior, was nonexistent against Virginia's pack-line defense, scoring only five points.

And a final alarming element: A complete lack of depth. Duke's starting five is the best starting five in the country; I fully expect all five of these players to be first-round picks. After those five, Duke gave a handful of minutes to Javin DeLaurier and Alex O'Connell; Duke's bench combined for one shot, zero points and two rebounds.

It's here when I'm supposed to tell you that all these reasons -- combined with a Duke defense that's been mediocre all season, currently ranking in the 60s nationally on KenPom.com -- mean that the preseason No. 1 team is going to be in trouble come March.

I'm not ready to say that.

I'm ready to say the opposite.

There are two things that matter most when you're predicting which teams will still be hanging around come the Final Four: big-time talent and big-time experience. Rarely in today's one-and-done era do those two things intersect, so our national champions tend to be one or the other: 2012 Kentucky was enormously talented, as was 2015 Duke. 2017 North Carolina was not filled with lottery picks, but they had six upperclassmen in their rotation; 2016 Villanova wasn't filled with lottery picks either, but they had five upperclassmen in their rotation.

Yes, Virginia is going to win the ACC regular-season title. Tony Bennett's historic defensive squad has already opened up a three-game lead on Duke in the ACC standings, and it's only January.

The rafters of Cameron Indoor are crowded with ACC championship banners, but those aren't exactly this program's greatest accomplishments. It's the national championship banners and Final Four banners that count most. That's what this program touts when it's aiming for the next batch of elite recruits. And I still feel as confident in Duke being around come the Final Four in San Antonio as I do for any team in the country that's not named Villanova.

Here's why: Duke's defense, which looked awful at the beginning of ACC play when they gave up 93 points in a win over Florida State and 96 points in a loss at North Carolina State, is gradually getting better. The team has slowly crept upward in defensive efficiency rankings as its 2-3 zone defense has looked far more capable than any man-to-man defense it has trotted out. This should not be a surprise; these one-and-done players can come right into Duke and not miss a step on offense, but playing team defense at a high-major level is not exactly a staple of the AAU world that they're coming from. The freshmen are getting better. And this team does not need UVA-style dominant defense to come home with a national title. If Duke can get into the top 40 or so in defensive rankings, they'll have as good of a shot as anyone to cut down the nets.

What it comes down to is this: This Duke team has some issues. I don't have to tell you that. But the issues don't feel demonstrably different than the issues that the Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones team was facing in January 2015 as they too struggled mightily on defense. That young team grew exponentially on defense throughout the season, and they won the national title. This team is going to keep growing on the defensive side of the ball as well.

Why do I feel so confident? It's pretty simple: In the end, talent usually wins out. And Duke has more of it than anyone else.

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