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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Duke can no longer be discounted as a Final Four contender

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Andre Dawkins (AP)

So much of the conversation about Duke this season has centered around its obvious flaws that something else about the Devils has somehow been overlooked.

They're the only team in the nation whose list of marquee wins rivals even Kentucky's.

A 74-66 win at fellow ACC contender Florida State on Thursday gave Duke five wins over teams currently ranked in the AP Top 15, more than other team in the nation. The victory also avenged a previous buzzer-beating loss to the Seminoles and kept Duke (24-4, 11-2) tied atop the ACC with North Carolina and on pace to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

What's most interesting about the Devils' success is that they haven't solved the problems critics identified early in the season. They still lack a distributing point guard capable of getting in the lane and dishing too his teammates, nor do they have guards big and athletic enough to stay with opposing wings off the dribble.

In spite of those weaknesses, however, Duke is playing exceptionally in enough other facets of the game to overcome them.

The Devils are more efficient offensively than any other ACC team, scoring an incredible 1.13 points per possession in conference play. Despite no true point guard in their seven-man rotation, they make more threes than any other ACC team, they turn the ball over less than any other ACC team and they consistently get to the free throw line.

Those attributes were on display Thursday against a Florida State team that's consistently among the best defensive squads in the nation.

Duke held a lead nearly from start to finish by finding ways to free their shooters and to get to the foul line, sinking 13 of 28 threes and 17 of 26 foul shots. Andre Dawkins had five first-half threes en route to a game-high 22 points. Austin Rivers hit four threes of his own and finished with 20 points. And while fouls prevented Miles Plumlee from playing for key stretches in both halves, the senior continued his Brian Zoubek-like finish to the season with 10 points and eight boards.

The lingering question facing Duke remains whether it defends well enough to be a true threat to make the Final Four. The Devils guard the three-point line better than anyone in the ACC because they pressure the ball so well, yet they're so susceptible off the dribble that they're giving up 0.99 points per possession this season, worst among top 10 teams and 141st best in the nation overall.

Previous Blue Devils teams have been exposed by more athletic backcourts in the NCAA tournament, but history suggests it's possible for a team with a defense as porous as Duke's to advance to the Final Four.

Just last season, VCU made it despite surrendering 1.01 points per possession all year. The previous year, West Virginia and Michigan State both advanced to the Final Four even though they gave up more than 1.0 points per possession apiece.

Ultimately, the primary takeaway from Duke's success should be this: It's silly to discount the Devils as a Final Four contender.

Any team capable of toppling North Carolina, Kansas, Michigan State, Michigan and Florida State during the regular season has the potential to earn a trip to New Orleans in March.

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