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February 28, 2008"Duke will be good, but only so good" was the prevailing consensus in the preseason.
The Blue Devils had a bevy of talented guards, and the addition of five-star small forward Kyle Singler would make them more potent on the perimeter. But the early departure of 6-foot-11 power forward Josh McRoberts made an already thin frontcourt look almost nonexistent.
The perception was that Duke lacked size and had no inside scoring threat, supposed glaring weaknesses that led to North Carolina receiving all 64 first-place votes in the ACC preseason poll. The undersized Blue Devils barely edged North Carolina State for second place.
But with Selection Sunday a little more than two weeks away, Duke (24-3 overall, 11-2 in the ACC) is very much in the national title picture. Even after losses at Wake Forest and Miami, the Blue Devils rank fifth in the RPI. The Blue Devils won each of their first 10 ACC games by double-digits, including a 89-78 victory at North Carolina ? which was missing injured point guard Ty Lawson ? on Feb. 6.
The Blue Devils are a half-game behind North Carolina in the ACC race, with a rematch looming March 8 at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
So, how can a team with virtually no big man be this good? How have they been able to manage on the inside with the 6-foot-8 Singler often forced to defend opposing centers?
Much of the answer lays with Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni and the high-powered, perimeter-oriented attack he brought to the NBA. D'Antoni has been an assistant to Mike Krzyzewski on the United State national team for the past two years, and D'Antoni's influence has worked its way into Duke's offense.
"Mike (Krzyzewski) has done a great job with what he has," Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio said. "He doesn't have a true post player, so he runs a lot of D'Antoni's stuff. We went to see the Suns in training camp in the preseason, and Mike has obviously spent a lot of time with him on the Olympic team. He runs a lot of the Suns' stuff.
"They spread the floor and take advantage of the elbow. He's done a marvelous job with the guys he has and utilizing their skills. That's why they have been so successful and are a top-five team."
The Suns' offense, which primarily uses four players on the perimeter and one in the paint, has been an ideal fit for the guard-heavy Blue Devils. Duke is averaging 85 points a game, which ranks second in the ACC behind North Carolina (90.1). That's an improvement of more than 15 points per game from last season, when the Devils were last in the league at 70.4 points per game.
"We're not this big, physical team, but we have pretty good athletes and a lot of interchangeable parts," Krzyzewski said.
With four and often all five players on the court able to shoot and handle the ball, Duke doesn't bother with trying to get the ball inside much. Instead, the Blue Devils focus on penetrating and kicking the ball back out to the perimeter, which can lead to an open 3-pointer.
Duke has a league-high 644 3-point attempts ? 62 more than the next-highest total, Virginia's 582.
"They all play like guards and they are all shooters, one through five," said Miami power forward Dwayne Collins, who scored a career-high 26 points in the Hurricanes' 96-95 upset of Duke last Saturday. "Shooting 3-pointers is their game. When they are not hitting, they are vulnerable. But they are rarely off."
Collins is right. Guards Greg Paulus (41.5 percent) , Jon Scheyer (41.3 percent) and DeMarcus Nelson (41.8 percent) shoot better than 40 percent from 3-point range. Singler, who is at 37.2 percent, may join the club soon. As a team, the Blue Devils are shooting 38.4 percent from beyond the arc.
"Duke defends the 3-pointer even better than they shoot it," Skinner said. "They can also turn you over. That limits not having a true post player."
Duke's opponents, lured by the chance to attack the inside, have attempted an ACC-low 398 3-pointers. But most of those attempts have come with a defender and an outstretched hand nearby. Only 31.2 percent have gone in, making Duke second in the league in 3-point field-goal percentage defense.
The Blue Devils lead the league with a plus-5.4 turnover margin. They commit 13.9 turnovers per game while forcing 19.3 per game, another byproduct of fielding a quicker team and having more ballhandlers on the floor.
"If we force a turnover, that means we don't have to play post defense or there's not a shot where the (opponent) can use their strength against us," Krzyzewski told The Greensboro (N.C.) News & Record.
Duke also has managed to more than hold its own on the glass, outrebounding opponents by one per game (37.6-36.6). The last time the Blue Devils won the national title (2000-01), they held the same small edge in rebounding margin.
Much of the credit goes to Nelson and Singler. Nelson, who has a muscular 6-foot-4 frame, is one of the nation's top rebounding guards ? he pulls down an average of six boards a game. That's tied for the team lead with Singler, who has developed into an adequate post defender.
"We have a lot of players who can play multiple positions and we can use that versatility to exploit other teams," Nelson said.
Singler's play has been critical to Duke's success. Highly skilled and armed with shooting range that extends beyond the NBA 3-point line, Singler creates mismatches on offense. He often pulls bigger and slower defenders out of the paint. Singler ranks second on the team in scoring (14.3 points per game) and field-goal percentage (48.4 percent), and also is shooting 76.6 percent from the free-throw line.
"He's a Larry Bird-type player," Collins said. "I really think he's one of the best players in the ACC."
Singler and the Blue Devils recently received some help on the inside with the return of 7-foot-1 sophomore reserve center Brian Zoubek, who missed nine games with a broken foot. He played the best game of his career in Duke's 86-56 rout of St. John's on Sunday, scoring 11 points and grabbing a career-high 13 rebounds.
"With Brian coming in, Kyle can go to the outside a little more," Krzyzewski said. "That's where he should play. He won't have to guard (centers) as much, which he's had to do all season. Now he might be a little fresher as the game goes along."
But Duke doesn't need Zoubek to start posting those kind of numbers to show they have an inside presence. They already proved they can win ? and win big ? without it.
Andrew Skwara is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.