Throughout the offseason, the debate lingered among college basketball analysts and fans: Will the Duke Blue Devils be as good as the team that won the 2009-10 national title?
Or will they be even better?
The possibility of the latter certainly exists. Duke, after all, is ranked No. 1 in the Associated Press poll thanks to the return of All-American candidates Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith. And it's no secret the addition of freshman point guard Kyrie Irving will allow the Blue Devils to play faster. Irving is a likely Top 10 pick in next summer's NBA draft.
Even though his presence is the central reason for the increased optimism, the hoopla surrounding Irving is overshadowing Duke's X-factor – or should I say X-factors. Miles and Mason Plumlee.
Not many people outside of Tobacco Road realize just how special the brothers can be. Miles, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound junior, averaged 5.2 points last season while Mason, who is a grade behind his sibling, chipped in 3.7.
Both would've seen more court time if not for the presence of talented seniors Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek, who played vital roles in Duke's national title run. Instead the brothers waited patiently on the bench, knowing they'd eventually get their time to shine.
That time has arrived.
The Plumlee brothers' athleticism fits perfectly with Duke's new, fast-paced offense. They'll be among the best forwards in the country at getting up and down the floor. And they're more of an offensive threat than Thomas and the 7-foot Zoubek, who combined to average 10.4 points and 12.6 rebounds.
The Plumlees should produce better numbers, but they won't always wow you statistically. Not on this team, where Singler, Smith , Irving and maybe Seth Curry could all average double figures. In Sunday's season-opener against Princeton Miles and Mason combined for just seven points and six boards. They took just six shots.
Still, their presence, length and athleticism will always be a factor.
During a dunk contest at Duke's Midnight Madness, Mason slammed home an alley-oop pass with his right hand and, while he was still in the air, dunked another ball that he was carrying in his left hand. It wasn't good enough to outdo the showmanship provided by his brother, who advanced to the title round before losing to Andre Dawkins.
"It was like an NBA dunk contest out there," Mason said.
It was a fitting statement, considering one website has projected Mason – a standout high-jumper in high school – as a first-round pick in the upcoming NBA draft. And you can bet Miles will get his shot someday, too. Also, last week, Duke signed the Plumlee's younger brother, Marshall, to a national letter of intent. Too bad he won't be around to play with this year's group.
With Irving, Singler and Smith – and, of course, the Plumlees – this could be one of the best Duke teams in recent memory.
1. Duke (1-0) – The Blue Devils may be good enough to run the table in the ACC.
2. North Carolina (1-0) – Scoring was a problem in 2009-10. It won't be this year.
3. Virginia Tech (1-0) – Are the Hokies ready for Kansas State? Heck, is K-State ready for the Hokies?
4. North Carolina State (1-0) – The Wolfpack could make some noise in a down year for the ACC.
5. Florida State (2-0) – Leonard Hamilton keeps plugging away.
6. Clemson (1-0) – Brad Brownell didn’t inherit an awful situation.
7. Maryland (3-0) – As long as Gary Williams is on the sideline, the Terps have a chance.
8. Miami (1-0) – The Hurricanes' backcourt is salty.
9. Boston College (1-0) – Cornell is missing Steve Donahue.
10. Virginia (1-0) – Freshman Billy Baron scored 19 points in the season opener.
11. Georgia Tech (1-0) – The Yellow Jackets need frontcourt help.
12. Wake Forest (0-1) – The Demon Deacons' best players are freshmen.
Jordan Williams, Maryland – The Terps' sophomore forward couldn't be off to a more impressive start. The 6-foot-10, 260-pound Williams is averaging 21 points and 13.6 rebounds in his first three games, all Maryland victories.
Malcolm Delaney at the line – Delaney, Virginia Tech's preseason All-America point guard, made all 11 of his foul shots in the Hokies' season-opening victory against Campbell. Delaney, who shot 84.2 percent from the free-throw line last year, is in for a stiff test when Virginia Tech takes on Jacob Pullen and No. 3 Kansas State on Tuesday in Manhattan.
ACC freshmen – The league is down – but it won't be for long if some of these fresh faces stay in school longer than a year. North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, who is projected as the No. 1 pick in next summer's NBA draft, will almost certainly leave after his freshman season. The same thing goes for Duke's Kyrie Irving. But North Carolina has two other potential stars in Kendall Marshall Reggie Bullock. And don't forget about C.J. Leslie, Ryan Harrow and Lorenzo Brown at North Carolina State.
Duke recruiting – Austin Rivers – the top-ranked recruit in the Class of 2011 – commanded most of the headlines. And rightfully so. But the Blue Devils also landed three other Top 100 players in point guard Quinn Cook (No. 28), Michael Gbinije (No. 31) and center Marshall Plumlee (No. 82). After a few down seasons, Duke has now brought home banner classes in back-to-back years.
Ron Wellman – The Wake Forest athletic director made a strange hire when he chose Colorado coach Jeff Bzdelik to replace Dino Gaudio. Bzdelik had no history of postseason success in Boulder or at Air Force or Maryland-Baltimore County. Any negative feedback Wellman received probably increased after Wake Forest fell to Stetson 89-79 in Bzdelik's first game. To be fair, three freshmen played double-digit minutes for a team that lost Al-Farouq Aminu, Chas McFarland, Ishmael Smith, L.D. Williams and Tony Woods.
Georgia Tech – The Jackets shot just 28.8 percent (17 of 59) in a 52-39 victory over Charleston Southern to open the season. Even worse, Georgia Tech was outrebounded 42-34. Could be a long season for coach Paul Hewitt, whose squad lost forwards Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal to the NBA.
Opening week schedule – Thank goodness for an upcoming lineup that includes Miami at Memphis (Monday), Virginia Tech at Kansas State (Tuesday) and Maryland vs. Pittsburgh (Thursday in New York). Other than the Maryland-College of Charleston nail-biter, the first week of ACC games was brutal.
The NCAA – Because of a ridiculous rule, Duke's Seth Curry isn't eligible to receive a championship ring commemorating the Blue Devils' 2009-10 national title. Curry played his freshman season at Liberty and then sat out last season at Duke under NCAA transfer rules. But he practiced with the Blue Devils and was integral part of their preparation each week. However, NCAA bylaw 188.8.131.52 limits championship awards to players "eligible to participate in the championship event." While transfers are ineligible to receive rings, players who don't participate in championship games or later declare for redshirt status are eligible to be given rings. "That is totally wrong – totally wrong – because he's a scholarship player," Krzyzewski said last month. "He participated in every practice." Krzyzewski went on to call the rule "archaic" and "tragic."
The ACC is was 14-1 overall through Sunday's games, with the only loss coming by Wake Forest against Stetson … Alabama transfer Justin Knox played 13 minutes and scored six points during his debut for North Carolina. But he also had three turnovers and only one rebound. A senior forward, Knox will have to play a huge role for the Tar Heels off the bench … John Henson snared 17 boards for North Carolina in that same game, an 80-66 victory over Lipscomb … While Jeff Bzdelik lost in his Wake Forest debut, two other new coaches (Clemson's Brad Brownell and Boston College's Steve Donahue) won in their first outing with their new school … Four ACC schools signed recruiting classes that were ranked among the Top 25 in Rivals.com's team rankings: No. 3 Duke, No. 4 North Carolina, No. 18 Virginia Tech and No. 20 Florida State … North Carolina State's freshman class of C.J. Leslie (21 points), Ryan Harrow (16) and Lorenzo Brown (14) combined for 50 points in the Wolfpack's 82-69 season-opening victory against Tennessee Tech … Miami opened the season with an 88-77 victory over Jacksonville, but the Hurricanes had to rally after trailing by six at halftime … Two days after scoring just three points on 1-of-6 shooting in the season-opener, Florida State standout sophomore Michael Snaer bounced back with a 16-point effort in Sunday's win over UNC-Greensboro.
THREE TO WATCH
Miami at Memphis, Monday – Memphis has as much backcourt depth as any team in the nation, but the Tigers are young and star Will Barton is banged up. Can Durand Scott, Malcolm Grant and the Hurricanes take advantage?
Virginia Tech at Kansas State – Seth Greenberg and the Hokies won't need to campaign for an NCAA tournament berth if they beat teams such as the third-ranked Wildcats. The Malcolm Delaney-Jacob Pullen matchup should be a dandy.
Maryland vs. Pittsburgh at MSG – Both teams are 3-0, but Ashton Gibbs and Pittsburgh may be too much for a Maryland squad that lost its top player in Greivis Vasquez. Look for a 12-15 point win – at least – by the Big East favorite Panthers.