A list of the 10 best wins this season would likely include three different entries from the Duke Blue Devils. On December 3, they went into Madison and knocked off the then-No. 2 Badgers. Last month, they notched a huge road win in the ACC, leading by as much as 21 in the second half against No. 6 Louisville. Just last weekend, they dealt No. 2 Virginia its first blow of the season, emerging from Charlottesville with a 69-63 victory.
Any one of those wins would be the best for a lot of very good teams. Wisconsin doesn’t have an individual win that measures up to any of those. Neither does Utah or Villanova or Gonzaga. This Duke squad has already proven it can beat elite competition in hostile environments. It’s on the short list of teams that can realistically win six straight games in March and April. It’s also a very young team with three freshmen -- Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow -- playing at least 68 percent of the team’s minutes. That youth has likely contributed to a trio of performances that suggest the Blue Devils could be headed home early for the third time in the last four seasons.
The most recent of those came on Wednesday night at home against Georgia Tech. The Yellow Jackets entered the game 10-11 overall and 1-8 in the ACC. They have losses to Wake Forest, Boston College and South Carolina Upstate on their resume. They’re ranked 83rd on KenPom and 107th in RPI. These are just three different ways of saying Georgia Tech isn’t a very good basketball team. And yet, the Yellow Jackets hung with the mighty Blue Devils in Durham.
Georgia Tech made Duke look beatable by making life difficult for two of its youngsters. Okafor scored 14 points, but he needed 12 field goal attempts to get there, resulting in the second-worst shooting night of his freshman year, as well as just the third time he converted less than 50 percent of his shots from the floor. Jones, meanwhile, was 3-for-10 attempted just two free throws, nearly three fewer than his season average.
Still, Duke took a 33-23 lead with five minutes left in the first half. Just when it looked like Duke might finally start to put some distance between themselves and their overmatched foe, Georgia Tech closed the half on a 9-5 spurt, and then scored five of the first seven in the second half. Duke wouldn’t lead by more than six points the rest of the night, ultimately winning 72-66. The other freshman, Winslow, went 5 for 6 from the floor for 15 points, and the lone notable senior, Quinn Cook, led the team with 17 points to keep the Blue Devils from another embarrassing, Jekyll-and-Hyde slipup.
The game followed a similar script to Duke’s loss against North Carolina State, its first reversal of the season. Okafor played like the Wooden Award candidate he is in that game, scoring 23 points on 8-for-11 shooting. In that loss, it was Winslow who struggled alongside Jones. The freshmen went a combined 4-for-19 from the floor, including 1-for-9 from behind the arc. Again, the senior Cook played well along with one freshman, but they weren’t able to get away with it against an N.C. State team that is simply better than Georgia Tech.
The song was almost exactly the same in the loss to Miami. Okafor had 15 and 15, while Cook led the team with 18 points. Jones and Winslow struggled again, going 3-for-15 from the floor. It should be noted, however, that after allowing a season-high 90 points, Mike Krzyzewski added a 2-3 zone to Duke’s defensive repertoire. Their very next game was the win over Louisville, which ranks as just their third-best of the season.
There’s no doubt that Duke has the horses to win its first championship since 2010. It also takes just one off night in the tournament to get sent packing in the opening weekend. No big-time program has more recent experience with such ignominy than Duke, having lost to No. 15 seeds in 2012 and 2014. The Blue Devils are going to earn another high seed this year, and rightly so.
At that time, the team’s triumvirate of freshmen will have to be more consistent as a group than it has been to this point of the season.