Tuesday February 9th, 2016

Duke has won three consecutive games after losing four of five to close out January. The Blue Devils’ latest triumph came on Monday night, a 72–65 decision over No. 13 Louisville in the 1,000th contest in the history of Cameron Indoor Stadium and the 1,000th coached by Cardinals coach Rick Pitino.

Here are three thoughts:

Don’t underestimate Louisville

The Cardinals’ season took a dispiriting turn last week, when they learned athletic director Tom Jurich decided to impose a postseason ban as the school continues to investigate allegations in the book Breaking Cardinal Rules. Louisville can no longer compete in the hopes of improving its NCAA tournament seed, but it remains in contention for the ACC regular-season championship. That’s the program’s foremost goal now, players said on Saturday, and there’s reason to believe it can achieve it, even though it will need to beat out four teams in the top 20 of Ken Pomeroy’s ratings (Virginia, North Carolina, Miami and Duke)

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For starters, any doubts over Louisville’s motivation without the tourney to play for were undermined by its performance on Saturday against Boston College. Yes, the Eagles are, well, not good, but the Cardinals crushed them to a degree—0.5 points per possession, to be exact—that suggests they aren’t letting up. On Monday, Louisville easily could have folded when it trailed by 15 points early in the second half, but it rattled off a 13–0 run and trailed by only two points with under three minutes remaining. That Louisville didn’t leave Durham with a win to enhance its position in the league title race is demoralizing for a team with no postseason to play for, but the Cardinals’ intensity and ability to challenge the Blue Devils on their home floor should uplift Louisville fans who feared slippage leading into March.

Louisville remains one of the best defensive teams in the nation—it entered Monday ranked second nationally in adjusted points allowed per possession, according to Kenpom.com—and it still features one of the ACC’s best offensive players in graduate transfer Damion Lee. Plus, the Cardinals have already proven they can knock off the league’s top teams; they handled then-No. 2 North Carolina at home on Feb. 1. Monday’s loss hurts, but Louisville will have plenty of chances to rebound against tough competition down the stretch, starting with Saturday’s road game at Notre Dame.

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This season won’t end the way the Cardinals would have hoped, but they can make the best of their situation by maintaining the level of play that got them here—the top 15 of the Associated Press Poll, No. 7 in KenPom’s ratings—in the first place.

We’re about to learn a lot about Duke

Monday night was not a must-win for Duke, but the importance of the victory becomes clear upon review of the Blue Devils’ upcoming schedule. On Saturday, they’ll begin a three-game stretch featuring teams who entered Monday ranked in the top seven of KenPom’s ratings. After hosting Virginia, Duke will take on North Carolina in Chapel Hill on Wednesday and Louisville at the KFC Yum! Center the following Saturday. Winning only one of those contests would be an acceptable outcome for the Blue Devils given the level of competition.

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Duke is in decent shape when it comes to qualifying for the NCAA tournament: It checks in at No. 23 in the RPI, holds a 7–4 league record and boasts nonconference victories against Georgetown, Virginia Commonwealth and Indiana. Barring a major meltdown down the stretch—Monday night’s performance doesn’t suggest that will happen—the Blue Devils won’t have to sweat out selection Sunday. But the coming weeks will nonetheless serve as a good barometer for Duke while offering several chances to boost its resume. The Blue Devils acquitted themselves well on Monday; let’s see how they fare against a Virginia squad riding a six-game winning streak and then their bitter in-state rival.

Duke is still without one of its key players

Amile Jefferson sat out Monday as he continues to rehabilitate a foot fracture suffered in December, and it’s unclear when he will return this season. The Blue Devils deserve credit for what they’ve accomplished without one of their top defenders, but it’s difficult to gauge this team’s quality without him on the floor. Duke has the offensive firepower to hang with most every opponent it faces—it entered Monday ranked second nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.com, and Brandon Ingram is a really tough matchup—but its lack of frontcourt depth without Jefferson is a major concern.

The Blue Devils have resorted to using wing Ingram as a nominal power forward alongside seven-footer Marshall Plumlee. The bruising senior has elevated his play in a bigger role this season. Plumlee entered Monday sporting the ACC’s top offensive rating during conference play, according to KenPom, and he’s making moves like this:

Yet it’s clear that Duke, even after it held Louisville under a point per possession on Monday, needs Jefferson to shore up its interior. The Blue Devils are incredibly difficult to guard with Ingram and guard Grayson Allen powering small-ball lineups, but other teams have and will continue to exploit their thin big-man rotation. Freshman center Chase Jeter, one of only two Duke reserves who saw action on Monday, played five minutes and hasn’t logged more than eight in a game this calendar year.

The Blue Devils entered Monday having allowed ACC opponents to shoot 48.6% on their two-point field goal attempts, good for ninth in the conference, and ranked 10th in block percentage.

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