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The youngest Blue Devil team in more than half a century has roared out of the gates to a 13-1 overall record and a lofty #5 national ranking through the first part of the schedule. Now, however, it's time for the real tests to begin as Duke prepares to embark on the ACC slate.

With the conference schedule kicking off Saturday afternoon against Virginia Tech, the Blue Devils find themselves exceeding expectations. With only one upperclassman playing a part in the regular rotation, Duke has played one of the top five schedules in the country according to the the various strength of schedule indexes - losing only to then No. 17 Marquette and the brilliance of Dominick James.

Since that night in New York, Duke has compiled a nine game win streak that relied heavily on the defensive aspect of the game. With 17 games remaining, head coach Mike Krzyzewski's team faces a number of questions. Some of which we examine below.

Duke Must Ward Off the Injury Bug:
Much has been made of the preseason injuries to Greg Paulus, and Gerald Henderson. Now Duke is dealing with another injury - to power forward Lance Thomas who suffered a sprained ankle leading up to the game with San Jose State.

The injury to Thomas was particularly disturbing to the Duke game plan as the 6-foot-8 freshman forward was in dire need of a confidence building performance after playing just nine minutes combined in the two games prior to the holidays - after making 10 straight appearances in the starting lineup previously. The reason for the sudden change in his role, according to Thomas, was a lack of effort in practice.

"I took a break. It's hard to admit that," he told the media. "I got what I deserved, but now it's time to turn it back on."

Unfortunately the opportunity to throw the switch and get back in the swing of things (not to mention to shake off the inevitable holiday rust) didn't arrive due to the injury.

Paulus, after playing himself out of the starting lineup early in the season, has rebounded as his health has improved, culminating with a career scoring night against Gonzaga before the Christmas holidays. Over his last three games the sophomore has averaged 14.6 points per contest. However, the reigning ACC assist king is dishing out just 3.6 assists per contest on the season - 3.0 against 2.0 turnovers in the last three games.

Much like Paulus, freshman Gerald Henderson was sidelined throughout the preseason - something Krzyzewski believes has hindered his star freshman's early impact in the college game.

"There's a certain amount of toughness, conditioning and skill work you get from the last week of August to the middle of October," K told the Raleigh News & Observer. "He's caught up quite a bit, but he's still behind [from that absence]."

After being able to out-athlete his opponents on his way to double figures against Georgia Southern and UNC-Greensboro early in the season, the 6-foot-4 forward has reached double figures just once in the last 11.

Can McRoberts Continue At This Level?
One of the biggest concerns for the Blue Devils throughout the season has been the scarcity of consistent offense. With the out-of-conference schedule now behind them, Duke ranks last in the ACC in scoring at only 68.9 per game. During the three game stretch against Indiana, Georgetown, and Holy Cross, the Blue Devils scored just 57.3 points per contest. In the last four contests, however, Duke has increased the output to a more respectable 70.8 points per game. The main catalyst for that increase has been the improved play of Josh McRoberts.

Over his last four, the 6-foot-10 sophomore has averaged 16.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 4.0 blocks - all team bests. In short, McRoberts is playing like a player who was on everyone's preseason All-conference, and awards lists. For Duke to experience anything close to the level of success that is expected of every Blue Devil team, McRoberts will need to continue to perform at this level according to fellow captain, DeMarcus Nelson.

"He's really coming into his own right now," said Nelson. "He's taking his game to the next level and playing with a whole lot of confidence. He's making a lot of plays for us. His play has been vital to our success and I can only expect him to get better as the season progresses."

Krzyzewski agreed.

"[Josh has] grown up so much in his desire to become a special player. He's just been a joy to coach. His leadership has been spectacular for our basketball team. He's doing that kind of stuff like a really good senior."

Dealing With Adversity In A Hostile Environment:
One thing this team has proven is a certain level of toughness that has been lacking in recent seasons. Without a game changing offensive presence on the floor, these young Blue Devils have been forced to rely on defense, hustle, and grit to sustain them. whether it was fighting off a furious rally by an inspired Indiana team, holding off Georgetown, or overcoming severe offensive droughts and early deficits to Gonzaga and Temple, Duke has been able to fight their way through everything thrown at them to date.

Of course in all those instances there was one common thread - all the games were home games. Even against the Zags, Duke was clearly favored by the crowd in Madison Square Garden. The biggest test of the ACC season for such a young team will be their ability to battle through adversity when thousands upon thousands of screaming fans are against them. Fans should have an idea of the team's ability to cope with such situations by the middle of January as three of the first five conference tilts will be on the road - highlighted by the January 10th match up against a very athletic and capable Georgia Tech team in Atlanta.

Continuing to Grow and Mesh:
The old saying goes that the best thing about freshmen is they eventually become sophomores. For Duke the ACC will be a case of freshmen growing up much faster. Luckily, the powers in Greensboro did the Blue Devils a favor with the scheduling in 2007. The 'power' portion of the schedule doesn't kick off until early February when Duke will host No. 2 North Carolina. Following round one with Tar Heels, Duke will travel to Maryland's Comcast Center, then onto Boston College. On the heels of that road trip, Duke will host Georgia Tech, before heading back on the road to No. 18 Clemson. The ACC slate wraps up with a home game against Maryland and then a trip to Chapel Hill.

With such a rough second half of the season lined up, it will be crucial for the Duke freshmen to continue to step up and find their place within the team's day to day system - likely it'll be a trial by fire beginning in the next few days.

And now, it's on with the show.


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