by Eric Tullis
When this week’s Top 25 college basketball polls were released, the most baffling thing was that regardless of the 8-0, No. 2-ranked Duke Blue Devils having defeated three top-five teams in November (something that no other team has ever achieved) they still weren’t able to land the country’s No. 1 spot in either the AP or USA Today polls.
Last Saturday, after Duke’s 80-55 win over Delaware and inside what Coach Kryzewski has recently dubbed “Club Cameron”, the Cameron Crazies hoisted a poster that read “What Does It Take to Be Number 1?”, which also pictured the team logos of Kentucky, Louisville and Ohio State all crossed out in crimson ink—an Indiana Hoosier’s team color.
Therein lies the answer for the Blue Devils; beat No. 1 Indiana or at least get the poll’s voters to ignore the narrative behind Hoosiers head coach, Tom Crean’s basketball revival dreams in Indiana. Neither seems possible, unless the two teams meet in the NCAA Tournament or Indiana starts to plummet after some tough losses during upcoming Big Ten conference play.
The Duke vs. Ohio State revenge storyline from this year’s ACC/Big Ten challenge failed because Ohio State was missing a combined 41 points from ex-Buckeyes Jared Sullinger and William Buford and, well, because point guard Aaron Craft was eviscerated into a flushed ball of failure. Instead of playing the Buckeyes two years in a row, a more difficult test for the Blue Devils would have been to go head-to-head with Indiana, matching up National Player of the Year candidates Mason Plumlee and Cody Zeller and laying all comparisons to rest.
Despite Mason Plumlee’s season averages of 19.6 points and 11 rebounds per game—four more than Zeller in both categories—Zeller is often celebrated as the better center. And there's a plausible case for it: Where Plumlee lacks in finesse and patience on the offensive end, Zeller is a controlled bullet train on offense. Zeller, with only 11 blocks on the season compared to Plumlee’s 15, isn’t celebrated for his defense, but won’t get criticized for the sort of delayed reaction time that haunts Plumlee’s brain and legs.
Since the Ohio State game, Plumlee became Duke’s all-time leader in dunks (150), which, when you think about it, is a pretty useless statistic. But, many of those dunks have been delivered via alley-oop passes from this year’s breakout point guard, Quinn Cook. Can we agree that those mid-air connections between the ball and the hands require a sense of precision and timing on Plumlee's behalf?
So, why can’t Plumlee apply that on the defensive end as well? The three blocks he amassed against Delaware showed improved timing, but against a more dominant player like Cody Zeller, Plumlee would need to be playing about a half-second ahead of time. Ryan Kelly, who Coach K recently described as, “a heck of a player right now”, understands this, which is why he leads the team with a total of 18 blocks on the season. Yes, again, "heck of a player" leads the Duke Blue Devils in blocked shots even with high-flying, top-of-the-backboard-alley-oop-catching Mason Plumlee occupying the paint.
Would any of this make-or-break Duke’s chances of getting the No. 1 ranking at least before conference play on Jan. 5? Probably not, but as soon as Plumlee’s all-around game gets the respect it needs, the Cody Zeller Effect on everyone’s affection toward Indiana will melt away. Even if both of these teams make it to 13-0 before conference play—barring Indiana losing to Butler on Dec. 15, or Temple upsetting Duke in East Rutherford this weekend—Duke has to land at No. 1.
By then, we’re assuming that the youngest Plumlee, Marshall, will have made his debut in a Blue Devil uniform, and that reserves Amile Jefferson and Alex Murphy will have found their niche in the Duke rotation. Then, what can compete with that?