In the championship game of the most anticipated holiday tournament of the college basketball season, Louisville found out the hard way what so many other top programs have already discovered.
It's nearly impossible to beat Duke in an early-season tournament.
By staving off second-ranked Louisville's comeback bid to earn a 76-71 victory in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game, No. 5 Duke kept alive one of college basketball's more impressive streaks. The Blue Devils (6-0) have won the last six in-season tournaments they've entered, a win streak that spans six years and 21 games.
The last team to beat Duke in an early-season tournament was Marquette, which rode 25 points from guard Dominic James to defeat the Blue Devils 73-62 in the title game of the 2006 CBE Classic. Since then, Duke avenged that loss against Marquette in the finals of the Maui Invitational in 2007, clobbered Michigan in the 2008 2K Sports title game and won the 2009 NIT Season Tip-Off, the 2010 CBE Classic, last year's Maui Invitational and this week's Battle 4 Atlantis.
What makes the Blue Devils' performance in the Bahamas perhaps the most impressive of any of those is the caliber of teams they beat. Minnesota is a likely NCAA tournament team, VCU could be the favorite in the Atlantic 10 and Louisville returns the core of last year's Final Four team, though the Cardinals were without standout center Gorgui Dieng on Saturday due to a wrist injury.
How did Duke navigate such a treacherous path? Credit the starters, all of whom came through even though the Blue Devils' backups combined for a paltry eight points in three games.
Mason Plumlee took a big step in his emergence as an elite big man by averaging 17.7 points and 11.3 rebounds in three games. Fellow seniors Ryan Kelly and Seth Curry provided perimeter shooting and leadership. Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon showed poise, athleticism and an ability to get to the rim.
And then there's Quinn Cook, the sophomore point guard whose play was regarded as the barometer for Duke's season entering November. Cook solidified his grip on the starting point guard job with a nine-assist, three-turnover performance against VCU's pressure defense and with 11 points in the final eight minutes against Louisville.
Considering Duke has now beaten Louisville, Kentucky, VCU and Minnesota, the Blue Devils have as strong a case as for the No. 1 ranking in Monday's AP Top 25 as any team in the nation. Their lack of depth is a concern, especially in the frontcourt until Marshall Plumlee gets healthy, yet no unbeaten team in the country has four better wins than those.
The big question now for Duke is whether early-season tournament success will translate into wins in the tournament that really matters -- the one in March.
Three times since the streak began, Duke has failed to get out of the opening weekend of the NCAA tournament. So believe in the Blue Devils in November tournaments but be cautious before putting stock in them in the postseason.
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