Duke is no longer undefeated, and no longer No. 1, thanks to its 89-84 loss at Boston College this past weekend. This should not come as a massive surprise, nor is it a long-term indictment.
For those willing to look past the patina of national polls, it was clear Duke was a bit fortunate (in addition to boasting some exceptional talent) in the first month of the season. The Blue Devils (11-1) were challenged well into the second half by Michigan State, Portland State(!), Texas, Florida and Indiana.
This was not the next 1976 Indiana (which went undefeated) or even a 1992 Duke (which went wire-to-wire at No. 1). Somebody was going to upend the Blue Devils — probably multiple somebodies. Hot-shooting Boston College (8-3) happened to get past Duke first.
(A worthwhile aside: Eagles Coach Jim Christian’s favorite offseason quip was that every year there’s a surprise team in the ACC, and he believed it would be his program. With a superb backcourt of North Carolinians Ky Bowman and Jerome Robinson, he had reason for optimism. Boston College’s ceiling is probably lower after forward Deontae Hawkins’s season-ending injury, but it won’t be an easy out).
The fair question for Duke isn’t whether its scoring is sustainable. With the starting five Coach Mike Krzyzewski has assembled, it probably is. Marvin Bagley III is every bit as good as the hype that preceded his arrival in Durham suggested. Trevon Duval provides the Blue Devils the point guard play they lacked since Tyus Jones departed after the 2015 season. Grayson Allen remains a capable scorer. Gary Trent Jr. will have some monster games. Wendell Carter Jr. would receive much more attention on a team without Bagley, but he’s an interior force.
The concern for the Blue Devils is whether they can play defense at the level necessary to compete for a national title. This has cropped up a few times recently at Duke, whether it was the 2014 team with Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker defined in part by its defensive indifference right through a first-round loss to Mercer, or the shorthanded 2016 team that eventually resorted to using a zone for stretches in what then qualified as an unusual Coach K tactic.
Krzyzewski sagely pointed out Saturday the Blue Devils had just crammed 12 games into 30 days, leaving little time in practice for much of anything other than getting ready for the next contest. They’re entering a stretch of just two games in 27 days. That should serve Duke well, and provide the opportunity to improve and recharge before it dives deep into conference play. How the Blue Devils look at the defensive end Dec. 30 against Florida State will say plenty more about their long-term trajectory than Saturday’s loss in New England does.
While Duke went down, there were still seven undefeated teams left in Division I entering the week. That group was winnowed Tuesday when Mississippi State fell at Cincinnati. That leaves six teams in the race to be 2017-18’s Last of the Unbeatens.
* Arizona State: Bob Hurley’s team has piled up some fine victories in the first month of the season, beating Xavier on a neutral court and winning by 10 at Kansas. Toss in defeats of Kansas State, St. John’s and San Diego State, and the Sun Devils are a tested 9-0.
They’re also a ton of fun to watch. Between Shannon Evans II (who followed Hurley from Buffalo to the desert) and Tra Holder, Arizona State’s backcourt is one of the most productive in the country so far this season. The Sun Devils entered Wednesday’s games No. 5 in KenPom.com’s offensive efficiency rankings … and a pedestrian No. 154 in defensive efficiency. They’re not a perfect team, but they’re a threat to score 90 points every night.
Best guess on first loss: Dec. 30 at Arizona. The Sun Devils’ defense will probably lead to a silly loss or two in Pac-12 play, but the conference opener against the league’s preseason favorite is a logical spot for one of the season’s early surprises to take a loss.
* Florida State: The Seminoles (9-0) pounded Florida by 17 on the road, won by five at plucky Rutgers and have out-talented everyone else they’ve encountered. A deep rotation helped make that possible.
There isn’t a star the caliber of Dwayne Bacon or Jonathan Isaac on this year’s roster, but there are a lot of guys who fit their roles. Florida State got a bit overlooked because of its losses, but it is poised to be an aggravation throughout the ACC schedule.
Best guess on first loss: Dec. 30 at Duke. The Seminoles open league play against the Blue Devils and North Carolina, then get Miami and Louisville. Florida State won’t enjoy a zero in the loss column too much longer.
* Georgetown: Are the Hoyas (8-0) any good? It’s tough to sift for clues against a schedule ranked last nationally by KenPom.com.
The best hints come from the recent past. Both Marcus Derrickson and Jessie Govan played well in stretches last season, but Georgetown’s shaky backcourt play was its undoing while turning in back-to-back losing seasons. The early returns suggest the frontcourt remains this team’s strength.
Every discussion of the first month of the Patrick Ewing (coaching) era gets back to the schedule. And while it isn’t imposing, if the point of this season is to lay a foundation and get Ewing re-acclimated to the college game, it isn’t the worst thing the Hoyas have done — assuming no one thought this was a serious NCAA tournament contender.
Best guess on first loss: Saturday vs. Syracuse. It’s a guess all right, because it’s hard to get a great read on the Orange, too. But Jim Boeheim’s team will have the best guard on the floor (Tyus Battle), and that should carry the day in the latest encounter between these old rivals.
Brown delivered a triple-double on the season’s opening night, but the eye-opening development is how well a fairly young team has defended over the first month of the season. The development of sophomore big Dewan Huell has helped as well.
The Hurricanes (8-0) will try to remain undefeated Saturday at George Washington before heading to Hawaii for the Diamond Head Classic for three games, including a potential championship meeting with Southern California.
Best guess on first loss: Jan. 13 at Clemson. Wedged between a home game against Florida State and a Monday night game against Duke is this visit to Death Valley. Can’t help but to think that’s good timing for Clemson. The Tigers are capable and will be perfectly happy to engage in a rock fight if need be.
* Texas Christian: Well, it turns out Jamie Dixon can coach. Who knew, right? He only took Pittsburgh to 11 NCAA tournaments in 13 years.
Dixon scooted out of the Steel City after the Panthers’ move to the ACC almost immediately left them in the middle of the pack and returned to his alma mater. In Year One? The Horned Frogs won the NIT. In Year Two? They’re 10-0 with defeats of Nevada, St. Bonaventure and Southern Methodist. All five starters are back from last season, and Kenrich Williams is off to a fine start.
Is TCU a national title contender? Not likely. But it has a far better shot of earning the program’s first NCAA bid since 1998 than the fast-starting team of three seasons ago that began 13-0 against a fluffy nonconference schedule and then went 4-14 in Big 12 play.
Best guess on first loss: Dec. 30 vs. Oklahoma. The Big 12 did no favors to TCU, which meets Oklahoma (twice), Baylor, Kansas and Texas in the first five games of conference play.
* Villanova: The Wildcats (10-0) have ripped through a nonconference schedule highlighted by Gonzaga and Tennessee with an impressive mix of their typically slick offense and a defense with the potential to end up among the best of Coach Jay Wright’s tenure.
Mikal Bridges is enjoying a breakout season after the graduation of Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins, and Jalen Brunson is also an all-American contender as a junior. The road to the Big East title will still go through the Main Line.
Best guess on first loss: Jan. 28 at Marquette. Tempting as it is to pick the Wildcats’ trip to Butler (they lost there last year), whoever takes down Villanova is going to need to be able to score in bunches. Marquette, despite its defensive issues, can do just that.
There are seven remaining winless teams in Division I, all of which come from either the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference or Southwestern Athletic Conference: Alabama A&M, Alabama State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Coppin State, Mississippi Valley State, Norfolk State and Texas Southern. Those are all historically black universities, a group of schools that often operate with some of the smallest budgets in Division I.
Those issues segue into the other notable facet of the winless teams: They have combined for six home games all season, with Norfolk State accounting for three of them. Schools can pay a lot of bills by sending teams on moneymaking nonconference road swings, a fact of life in college basketball that’s never more apparent than in December.