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Eight straight wins, seven by double figures, five of them by 20-plus points and two those in ACC victories by 39 (Boston College) and 33 (Miami).
Duke looks again like not only a Final Four team but one that can win it all.
With no other dominant team out there, maybe only No. 8 Michigan State, the preseason No. 1, still has a ceiling to reach the remainder of the season while rapidly improving as they settle into playing rotations.
Duke (14-1, 4-0 ACC) continues to blend balance, depth and defense. Don’t be misled by Thursday night’s 73-64 win at Georgia Tech as the first single-digit victory since Georgetown Nov. 22 81-74 in New York. Recognize Georgia Tech is a vastly improved team with the return of point guard Jose Alvarado (18 points, five assists) combined with the improved inside play of James Banks (14 points, 15 rebounds).
Next up for Duke is returning home to face Wake Forest (8-6, 1-3 ACC) at 8 p.m. Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke began the season ranked No. 4 before making its usual climb to No. 1 with a 6-0 start, but the Blue Devils suffered a precipitous fall to No. 10 following an upset loss to Stephen F. Austin. Now, as long as Duke keeps winning, the biggest obstacle to the No. 2 Blue Devils reclaiming No. 1 is top-ranked Gonzaga’s weak West Coast Conference.
Gonzaga (16-1, 2-0 WCC) doesn’t have a ranked opponent remaining while on its winter tour from the Pacific Northwest campus in Spokane to San Diego and back.
As the Top 25 stands this week, Duke has three ranked opponents remaining: No. 13 Louisville (Jan. 18 at home), No. 10 Florida State (Feb. 10 at home) and No. 18 Virginia (Feb. 29 in Charlottesville). There also are home-and-home games remaining with two rivals, N.C. State and North Carolina.
What’s driving the Blue Devils’ New Year’s surge?
Continued balance: At Georgia Tech, four players hit double figures for the ninth time this year. Sophomore point guard Tre Jones scored 16 points, with eight rebounds and seven assists; freshman center Vernon Carey, 14 points, six rebounds; freshman guard Cassius Stanley 14 points with two momentum driving dunks; and freshman forward Matthew Hurt, 11 points, six rebounds.
Depth: Freshman guard/forward Wendell Moore is sidelined indefinitely with a broken bone in his left hand. That reduced the rotation from 10 to nine, but Duke had the luxury of playing junior Jordan Goldwire more minutes at point guard or shooting guard while paired with Jones. Goldwire played 37 minutes compared to his season average of 19.7.
Defense: Georgia Tech was forced into 17 turnovers and held below its season shooting average of 43.8 percent to 35.9. Georgia Tech trailed only 66-64 with 3:11 remaining, but Duke outscored the Jackets 9-0.
“Probably the thing that has helped us out all year — playing defense,” Jones told the media after the game. “We really sat down on the defensive end those last few possessions.”
The NCAA transfer portal makes it easy for college players to shop for a new school, and nowhere is that more evident than at Duke.
The Blue Devils never had an undergraduate leave the program since David Cutcliffe took over the program in 2008. But there is always a first and that’s Isaiah Kemp, a freshman defensive back. He played in only one game last fall and thus retains four years eligibility.
However, an unusual number of graduate transfers also entered the portal: running back Brittain Brown, wide receiver Scott Bracey, offensive lineman Liam Smith, linebacker Jacob Morgenstern, linebacker Xander Gagnon and safety Javon Jackson. There were all fourth-year juniors last season.
Another factor to consider, though, is older players may recognize more depth Cutcliffe has been touting with recent recruiting classes.
Tom Shanahan is a freelance writer based in Cary and author of “Raye of Light,” a book featuring Fayetteville’s Jimmy Raye as a pioneering black quarterback for College Football Hall of Fame coach Duffy Daugherty on Michigan State’s Underground Railroad football teams of the 1960s.