Instead Duke has reeled off three straight victories over Miami, Wake Forest, and NC State by an average of 22 points per game - here's why:
The Schedule Was Fortuitous:
After playing the senior ladened backcourt of Virginia Tech and a very athletic Georgia Tech squad, the Blue Devils caught a break by playing the three teams many experts believe will be competing for the bottom three spots in the league standings. There is certainly something to be said for beating the teams you are supposed to beat, but to be fair Duke didn't exactly join an exclusive club with wins over Wake Forest, NC State, or Miami. Earlier this season Miami lost to teams such as Cleveland State, Binghamton, and Buffalo. South Florida beat Wake Forest by eight, and NC State needed overtime to beat UNC-G at the beginning of the month. Still, winning against teams you are supposed to beat is a lesson that every good team must learn.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about Duke's three victories since the 0-2 start has been the way in which the Blue Devils have won to the tune of more than three touchdowns. Against Miami it was the offense that clicked, scoring 84 points (16 above the seasonal average) and shooting nearly 70% for the game. Then, against Wake Forest, Duke went cold. Ice cold. But, the defensive effort was once again the difference as Wake Forest managed to hit the 40 point mark on a last second lay-up. Over the weekend the Blue Devils took the fight right to NC State in a building that had given much stronger Duke teams fits, putting the Wolfpack away early and never allowing them hope the rest of the way.
The detractors will point to the relatively weak opposition as the main reason for Duke's resurgence. And there is some merit to that. A much stronger opponent is on the menu for Thursday when the Clemson Tigers bring their impressive 18-2 overall record to Cameron Indoor. It's early, but there it's likely that Duke will be a slim favorite. Not only because of the traditions of the two programs, but also because the young Blue Devils are now playing with confidence on the heels of three straight impressive wins. Had Duke been forced to play a fully formed Boston College team (pre-Sean Williams' suspension) or the buzz saw that is North Carolina following the Georgia Tech game, it could have started the snowball effect. Instead, the coaching staff was able to easily grab the attention of their young team and get back to basics while preparing for teams that wouldn't lie down, but also were unlikely to upset Duke.
Maybe The Light Has Gone On For Paulus:
In Mike Krzyzewski's system the point guard position is truly the engine that runs the team. More accurately, point guard play has been one of the best barometers for how the team is performing over the last decade. Krzyzewski's built in insurance policy in this area has been the sheer level of talent recruited to the program. Still, with such an unproven bunch in 2007, it's no surprise that the lead guard spot has been a pretty accurate indicator of how the team has performed. It's certainly been the case through nearly a third of the conference schedule.
In the two losses Greg Paulus' average were among the worst in his career. Against the Hokies and Yellow Jackets the sophomore, and yes he's just a second year player, averaged 3.0 points, 0.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists, and 4.5 turnovers while shooting 20% from the field, 14% from the perimeter, and 33% from the free throw line in 23.5 minutes per game. Magnifying Paulus' poor play was the performances of his opponents, who took over the game when it mattered most and carried their teams to victory.
Fast forward to the last week and a half that has included the three Duke victories and you see a much different output level at the position. Against Miami, Wake Forest, and NC State, Paulus has averaged 15.0 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 3.7 assists against 1.7 turnovers. Then there are the shooting percentages that have ballooned to a respectable 45% from the field, 43% from the perimeter, and 83% from the free throw line. The improved play has also landed Paulus on the court for longer periods as he's upper his minutes per game to 33.3 over the last three.
Following the Georgia Tech loss, Duke made some minor adjustments to the offensive attack - allowing more than just Paulus to initiate the offense. With Josh McRoberts and Jon Scheyer both able to handle the ball and create for their teammates, Paulus has been freed up to pick his spots on the offensive end, focus on his strengths, and build the confidence he clearly lacked in the opening rounds. Just how far Paulus has come will be tested in Duke's upcoming games as both Clemson and Boston College sport experienced ball handlers with high major athleticism.
The Rotation Is Settling Down:
Early in the season Duke's rotation went as many as 10 deep. Since that time the Blue Devils lost Jamal Boykin to transfer and Martynas Pocius to injury. The loss of two sophomores opened up more time for the freshman class, which has settled down the substitution pattern in a big way.
The starting lineup appears to be set with McRoberts, Thomas, Nelson, Scheyer, and Paulus - though Thomas' play has been limited with severe foul trouble recently. The "sixth" starter appears to be freshman wing Gerald Henderson, who has shown flashes of his potential on an increasing interval. The team's "glue guy", David McClure is the first person off the bench and has shown the ability to play either forward spot. During Duke's three game win streak the red shirt sophomore has averaged 8.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 2.3 steals in 25.6 minutes per game. Rounding out the rotation is freshman big man Brian Zoubek who has appeared for spot duty on the defensive end in relief of McRoberts.
Duke now sits at 3-2 in the league, a game behind Boston College, North Carolina, and Virginia Tech in the loss column with games against the Tigers and Eagles coming up this week. The increased level of the upcoming competition should provide a good measurement of just how far the Blue Devils have come since the sluggish start to conference play. Fortunately for Duke the scheduler makers are allowing the team to ease into the more difficult patch with both contests being played at Cameron.
With every game being a learning experience for this young group, this week's schedule will provide a clearer answer of Duke's sudden resurgence.