With back-to-back road games looming next week against ACC front runners Pittsburgh and Syracuse, Duke could not afford a home loss against dangerous Florida State on Saturday afternoon.
Not only did the Blue Devils avoid an upset with a 78-56 victory over the Seminoles, they also played well enough to suggest they can't be counted out in either of those upcoming road games.
They made a season-high 33 free throws by attacking the rim off the dribble instead of settling for jump shots. They gobbled up more offensive rebounds (26) than Florida State had total rebounds (24). And they forced enough turnovers with their aggressive perimeter defense to justify extending their ball pressure as far beyond the 3-point line as Mike Krzyzewski traditionally favors.
Progress in all those areas enabled Duke to overcome uncharacteristically poor 31 percent shooting and earn Mike Krzyzewski his 900th career win as coach of the Blue Devils. At 16-4 overall and 5-2 in the league, Duke remains in contention in the ACC title race, trailing first-place Syracuse by two games in the loss column and Pittsburgh and Virginia by one game.
The most predictable of Duke's improvements on Saturday was probably on defense, an area in which the Devils have gotten better of late after surrendering far too many easy baskets early in the season. They still lack a traditional rim protector to alter shots in the lane, but they've done a better job compensating recently by either limiting dribble penetration, forcing turnovers with their ball pressure or both.
Against a mistake-prone Florida State team far better on defense than offense, it was forcing turnovers that made Duke's defense effective. The Seminoles actually shot 50 percent from the field, but 17 turnovers rendered that shooting percentage moot.
Far more unexpected than Duke's success forcing turnovers was its domination of the offensive glass.
Rebounding has been a weakness for a Blue Devils front court that is typically smaller than its opposition, but Jabari Parker had nine offensive boards by himself and 7-foot Marshall Plumlee came off the bench to deliver seven. The contribution from Plumlee was especially encouraging since he is the lone true center on the roster and has the potential to fill some of Duke's weaknesses if he can carve out a spot in the rotation.
The question facing Duke entering its most challenging stretch of the season is whether the Blue Devils can sustain their improvements when they face tougher competition.
Will Parker revert to settling for jump shots against the menacing Syracuse 2-3 zone? Can the Duke perimeter defense keep Pittsburgh's bevy of athletic wings out of the lane? And will the Devils have any success on the glass against either of them?
For most of this season, Duke hasn't performed like the national title contender it was billed to be. The past few games have been encouraging for the Blue Devils, but next week will provide a true gauge of where they stand.