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Duke has issues, but not the ones we’ve been talking about

Jan 5, 2012, 1:16 AM EDT

spt-120104-dukesad

I’ve never taken much stock in the top 25 polls.

Why?

There are too many people with votes that have no clue what they are talking about and far too many decisions are made strictly based the last time a team lost. Ohio State lost by four on the road against a top 15 team that had already beaten then-No. 1 Kentucky at home and they drop from No. 2 in the country to No. 7?

No.

Sorry.

That just doesn’t make any sense. There is so much more that goes into the strength of a team beyond the simple wins and losses — Where was the game played? How good is that team on the road/at home? Was it a bad stylistic matchup? Did someone get in foul trouble? — that it takes more than just the skimming of box scores to understand how teams stack up. The outcome of one game shouldn’t necessarily change your opinion of a given team.

Now do you see why Gary Parrish has had such sustained success with the Poll Attacks?

It is that lose-and-you-drop, win-and-you-move-up attitude that has allowed teams like Louisville and Duke to climb into the top five this season when neither are top five teams. Cardinal fans had that realization last week, as they were beaten by Georgetown at home and the dropped by Kentucky at Rupp. Could No. 3 Duke’s 78-73 loss at Temple on Wednesday night be the result that bring the Blue Devils back down to earth?

I think so.

Duke is a flawed basketball team this season, but I think the reasons are different than what has been discussed on the blogs and message boards to date.

There have been two major criticisms of the Blue Devils through the first two months of the season. The biggest involves everyones favorite family of seven footers — the Plumlees. Coming into the season, Mason and Miles (Marshall is redshirting) were thought to be too soft in the middle for the Blue Devils to be able to compete with some of the other premiere programs across the country. Kentucky has Anthony Davis and Terrence Jones. Ohio State has Jared Sullinger. Baylor has a squadron of redwoods along their front line. UConn, Syracuse, North Carolina.

The one thing all those programs have is common is talented front lines with guys that will eventually be sitting in the Green Room at an NBA Draft. There aren’t many draft experts that would throw Duke in with those teams.

But so far this season, Mason Plumlee has been very good. He needs to get better from the foul line, but other than that, Mason has pretty much done what we all have asked of him: he’s rebounding the ball, he’s blocking shots and he’s made himself a presence in the paint on both ends of the floor.

Over the last six games, Miles has been almost as effective. During that stretch, he is averaging 9.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg and 2.8 bpg while shooting 74.2% from the floor in just 20.7 mpg. That’s pretty good for a back-up center. While the Plumlees are still a far cry from being elite big men, they are certainly better than they were given credit for early in the season.

The other major criticism involved Austin Rivers and his decision-making. Frankly, that was completely justified early in the season, but Rivers is starting to learn. His shot selection has gotten better and he’s making fewer dumb plays. You don’t want to take away all of his aggressiveness — that confidence that he can make any and every shot he takes is what makes him such a dangerous scorer — but teaching him to channel that aggressiveness and learn when to pick his spots is what will make Rivers reach his potential, and he’s starting to figure that out.

The way I see it, Duke’s biggest problem is that they lack playmakers and that they are a poor defensive team.

Think about it: who on the Blue Devils roster scares you in a 1-on-1 situation? Austin Rivers, yes. But Seth Curry is a jump shooter than can handle the ball. Andre Dawkins is a jump shooter that can’t handle the ball. Ty Thornton is a defender. Quinn Cook is a freshman. There simply isn’t enough raw talent and explosive scoring ability on the roster.

Defense is an even bigger problem. Curry, Dawkins and Rivers are all fairly poor defenders that lack the lateral quickness to stay in front of good players. Thornton can lock up at that end of the floor, but he’s a liability on the offensive end. The Owls exposed that perimeter defense, penetrating at will and creating open three after open three in the second half.

Duke has played two true road games this season. They were mollywhopped by 22 point when they went to Columbus to take on Ohio State and followed that up with a loss in Philly to a Temple team that has been thoroughly mediocre and is playing without their best big man in Michael Eric. They beat Michigan State in Madison Square Garden — which is always a pro-Duke environment unless they are playing a Big East team — before the Spartans hit their stride. They beat Washington in a game that was played in the Garden at 9am pacific time.

Hell, even their win over Kansas was aided by a Thornton travel that went uncalled.

Duke has had some impressive victories, yes, but when taken in context, their schedule is probably not quite what its made up to be.

My intent is not to say that the Blue Devils are a bad basketball team, because they aren’t. There is enough talent on this team — and the ACC is bad enough — that the Blue Devils are going to end up finishing second (at worst) in the conference. There are going to win 27 or 28 games. They are going to end up being, at worst, a three seed.

This is one of the top ten teams in the country.

But like Louisville, you cannot put Duke in the same sentence as the Kentucky’s, Syracuse’s and UNC’s of the world, at least not yet.

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.

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