It's an important resume-builder for Louisville (and I've got more on the Cards below), but there's some concern bubbling up now with Duke. This was the consensus No. 1 team in America in the preseason. It's battled injuries and suspensions and the unexpected hiatus of Mike Krzyzewski (the Hall of Fame coach is in the midst of a month-long hiatus after requiring lower-back surgery on Jan. 6).
Amid all this, Duke's now 14-4 with a 2-3 ACC record and is destined to plummet in the polls. That 2-3 ACC mark is the first time this century Duke's been 2-3 in league play. An alarming turn of events. Is this all because of Coach K's absence? Absolutely not. And if you're thinking Duke's not a top-15 team in America, you're wrong. They still could be top 10, even. Let's examine why.
Four things to know
1. Schedule matters
Duke's three ACC losses have come on the road against teams that are all securely in the NCAA Tournament field. Still, I don't think anyone expected Duke to lose at Virginia Tech, at Florida State and at Louisville. The expectation was to get a win in at least one of those games. But those are all really good teams, and context matters. Most teams in college basketball -- not all, but most -- would go 0-3 if faced with the same, legitimate obstacles Duke was dealt over the past two weeks.
Remember, Grayson Allen (who had another questionable run-in on Saturday) didn't play in the Virginia Tech game, and Amile Jefferson didn't play in the FSU loss earlier this week, nor the Louisville game Saturday. Also kind of important: Coach K has been out the past three games as well. So Duke went on the road Saturday to play a ranked team that has a Hall of Fame coach, and lost. That was the anticipated outcome.
2. Labeling Duke as "soft" right now is completely fair
Doug Gottlieb lobbed this insult on Twitter after Duke was done in by Louisville.
#Duke is soft. Getting punk'd on the road 3x is a trend - no killers on that team— Doug Gottlieb (@GottliebShow) January 14, 2017
If you want to talk purely in terms of win/loss, then Duke's 0-3 stretch in league play on the road against Va. Tech, FSU and Louisville is understandable. Those are tough road games. But looking at the way Duke has played, the fact that those three losses came by an average of 13 points, and how inferior Duke has looked? Now we're peeling the onion a bit here. To me, it's still about context, because I think Jefferson means so much to this team.
Without Jefferson, who is recovering from a bone bruise in his right foot, the Blue Devils have nothing to be prideful about down low. Duke went with Harry Giles, Chase Jeter and a little bit of Javin DeLaurier and Marques Bolden. Those four players combined for eight rebounds, eight fouls and seven points.
Allen, who was involved in yet another questionable incident (seriously, but it also wasn't his fault), was Duke's best player on Saturday. He scored 23 points, had nine rebounds and was the only consistent player for Duke on offense -- and that's even with six turnovers. On defense? It's another problem altogether. Without him, the Blue Devils are pedestrian on defense overall, but especially in the paint.
Freshman Harry Giles had the most exhausting game of his short career so far. In just his seventh game, he played 35 minutes but managed only seven points and was caught in ball-screen action all too often. Fellow freshman Jayson Tatum had one of the worst games of his career, fouling four times, committing three turnovers and shooting 3-of-11.
I'll refrain from declaring Duke is officially soft until I see Jefferson back in uniform. And speaking of that ...
3. Jefferson's return is on the table for Duke's next game
Duke interim coach Jeff Capel said, after Saturday's loss, that Jefferson's ability to come back is on a day-to-day evaluation. Duke's next game won't come until next Saturday (at home against Miami). So with seven more days to heal that bone bruise, Duke fans should be optimistic that Jefferson will return to the starting lineup. If he does, it will have been a two-week gap between games played for the pivotal fifth-year senior.
4. No team's had it as tough as Louisville
The Cardinals are now 15-3 overall, are 3-2 in the ACC and have won four times in seven chances against ranked opponents.
No team in college basketball has played more top 25-ranked squads this season. For Louisville to be 4-3 against the best teams, it's a good sign for the Cardinals moving forward. There's a lot of really tough play remaining in the loaded ACC, but based off what I've seen from U of L so far, the absolute worst-case scenario I can see for Rick Pitino's team on Selection Sunday is a 5 seed. A 2 seed is the ceiling.
Louisville had 19 points off turnovers vs. Duke. The Cardinals shot better than 60 percent in the second half and always had a response for any mild Duke push.
Louisville's beaten them both.