If the preseason consensus was Duke would be a bit down this season, then the Blue Devils have already sunk that theory.
They've amassed the most impressive collection of November wins in the nation, handing defending national champion Kentucky its first loss and ripping through Minnesota, VCU and Louisville to win the Battle 4 Atlantis last week.
Mason Plumlee has emerged as one of the nation's most dominant big men, Quinn Cook has entrenched himself as Duke's starting point guard and Rasheed Sulaimon has brought perimeter defense and scoring punch. That trio will spearhead the second-ranked Blue Devils' efforts to get another big win Wednesday night when they host No. 4 Ohio State in the marquee game of the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
To get a better idea of why Duke has exceeded expectations, I asked an assistant coach on a team who has already faced the Blue Devils this season to assess their strengths and weaknesses. The coach was granted anonymity to ensure honesty.
An opposing assistant coach on Duke:
1. What they did in the Bahamas [winning three games in three days with a short bench], that was unbelievably impressive. I'll be honest, I didn't think there was any way they were going to win that Louisville game. They've obviously got some mental toughness and they're in great shape. They only play seven guys. They'll play [Amile] Jefferson when they have to, but it's not like they're playing a bunch of guys. So I was shocked.
2. They don't have a lot of depth, but 1 to about 6 1/2, they're really good. [Mason] Plumlee is an absolute load. He's phenomenal. You play him one on one and he's going to score it almost every time. Or you double him, and they're playing 4-on-3 on the perimeter and they have four other capable shooters out there. They can beat you either way you choose to do it, but it all starts with him. You either have to stop Plumlee or stop the 3-point line. It's pretty tough to do both.
3. Plumlee is definitely much more assertive and more aggressive. When you watch him this year, he's pushing guys through to get his angles and get where he's supposed to be. And they're running things through him. Anytime you've got a good big kid and you've got shooters around him, that's a pretty good recipe for being able to score. They've got that. I'm not so sure he's not the best big in the country right now. I'll put it this way. I've seen [Cody] Zeller. I'll take him. I think Zeller's phenomenal. I don't think there's anyone who runs the floor better than him, but I'd take Plumlee. I'm not trying to oversell him, but he's really good.
4. [Quinn] Cook has improved quite a bit from last year. He has firm control over that team, he gets them where they need to go. He had a very calming influence on their team. He was steady. He gets them in what they want to run and they run it well. He's not rattled by pressure. He's a good quarterback for them. I don't think he's spectacular at any one thing, but he's very very good at a whole lot of things. That's all they really need.
5. [Seth] Curry is a threat you have to account for at every point on the floor. He's a big-time catch-and-shoot guy, but now he's reading screens, he's driving it a little bit, he's drawing fouls on shot fakes. He is definitely putting it on the floor more than he was in the past. He has added more layers to his game.
6. They guard really well. They're a lot more physical than you'd think. They can do a lot of switching because they have a lot of like parts. They're pretty athletic on the perimeter. Cook does a good job guarding the ball and [Rasheed] Sulaimon is a very good defender. He can kind of engulf the ball. Sulaimon, I think, really helps them. He's a catch-and-shoot guy, but he can also drive it. They run him off ball screens. He has a big frame. He doesn't look like a freshman. He can get in the lane and absorb contact. He's a really, really good piece for them.
7. Their biggest weakness is their short bench. You can be a bit more aggressive against them because they don't want to foul because they don't have a lot of depth. I don't think they're even really excited when they put [Josh] Hairston in off the bench, but he holds the fort down. And it doesn't seem like there as excited about Jefferson yet. ... Plumlee has had a lot of foul problems in the past, so you've really got to have a good post player that can go in there and attack him. The best way to attack them is to go inside out, to try to get him in foul trouble and to put pressure on them on the inside. If you get him out of the game, obviously that's huge.
8. It's probably to early to say [how good they can be]. I don't know when they get the other Plumlee back, but that would give them another post presence. I have no idea how good he is, but he sure looks the part. You have another post player in the rotation, it sure gives them some more options. I think they can get a jolt when he comes back. I think there's room for improvement. But they already won three games in three days against teams that are about as good as you're going to see in the NCAA tournament. I don't see any reason to believe they couldn't do it in March.