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Joe Boozell | | February 3, 2016

Duke is unranked, but does it really matter?

  Derryck Thornton made the most of his Tuesday night start in Atlanta.

ATLANTA -- Duke is outside of the AP Top 25 for the first time since November 2007. Take a wild guess: who do you think might be basking in such a statistic?

Everyone outside of Durham, North Carolina, apparently.

No college basketball team in 2015-16 can be considered a juggernaut at this point, but the ACC is still one of the strongest leagues in the land. The Blue Devils sit behind seven teams in their own conference, even after Tuesday night’s win over Georgia Tech boosted their ACC record to 5-4.

“It’s been a tough couple of days for our guys,” associate head coach Jeff Capel, who filled in for an ill Mike Krzyzewski, said after the game. “Certainly our thoughts have been with coach. Glad to know that he’s feeling better, and I think after watching this, he’ll feel even better.”

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The fact Duke is merely eighth in perhaps the deepest conference in college basketball is pretty crazy, when you take a step back. The Blue Devils are reigning national champions and sport the best offense in the country, per KenPom’s adjusted efficiency rankings. Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram combined for 41 points against the Yellow Jackets, and they remain one of the best scoring duos in the nation.

Krzyzewski has his team at 16-6 in early February. That’s very good by most schools’ standards; but if the season ended today, Duke’s .727 winning percentage would be its second-worst clip since 1996-97.

Heading into the dog days of conference play, Duke is three games behind North Carolina for first place in the ACC. Winning the regular-season crown is unlikely, but the Blue Devils picked an ideal time to have a "down" year.

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Five AP top-15 teams lost Monday and Tuesday alone, and it’s no secret that the NCAA tournament looks to be wide open this season. Duke’s defense isn’t close to what could be considered a championship-level defense -- but guess what? It wasn’t last year at this time, either. The Blue Devils rode a spectacular offense and a mediocre defense to a strong regular season in 2014-15, and once Coach K was able to find the right defensive puzzle pieces in March, the team became special.

Due to Amile Jefferson’s absence and a seven-man rotation, Duke has been playing plenty of zone recently. Georgia Tech dissected the Blue Devils’ 1-3-1 and 1-2-2 looks before Capel went back to the basics and had his squad man up. In the first half, the Yellow Jackets shot 58 percent from the field. In the second? 30.9 percent.

Turns out, the Blue Devils didn’t even practice their man-to-man-defense leading up to Tuesday night’s game. Their instincts ultimately saved them.

“In the preparation leading up to this game, we didn’t even go through (Georgia Tech’s) man sets,” Capel said. “We mainly worked on zone. But we’re at the point of the season where our man-to-man principles are there, and if we rebound the ball, we can be a solid man-to-man team.”

Here’s the big picture: sure, many made a big stink about Duke landing outside of the AP Top 25 for the first time in almost a decade. After all, it’s a remarkable statistic. But does it really matter, if Duke’s goal is to go far in the 2016 NCAA tournament? Hardly. Not this season; not with this overwhelming level of parity in college basketball.

Duke needs to worry about three things: Jefferson’s health, settling on the right defensive scheme and making sure its young players peak at the right time. Duke isn’t good enough to win a national championship at this exact moment, but is its ceiling good enough? Now you’ve got yourself an argument.

Case in point: freshman point guard Derryck Thornton played one of the best games of his college career against Georgia Tech. If he turns a corner and becomes the floor general Duke has lacked all season, this team won’t resemble the one we’ve seen the past few weeks.

“Derryck’s gotten better,” Capel said. “It started at N.C. State, I thought he did a good job of going against Cat Barber and he played well in the second half at Miami. He’s had a really good attitude and has really worked in practice.”

Duke won on Tuesday night at Georgia Tech, and by most Duke teams’ standards, that’s exactly what it should do. But focus on the process rather than the end result, and you’ll see a bevy of positive signs. Thornton and Chase Jeter had some of their best performances of the season, Ingram positively influenced a game in which he wasn’t shooting well and Duke mustered up something of a defensive identity in the second half. It hasn’t done that consistently all season.

“Our young guys grew up tonight,” Capel said.

Falling outside of the top 25 isn’t rock-bottom for a typical college hoops program, but Duke is far from typical. If the second half of Tuesday’s game was any indication, perhaps it was a wake-up call.

Or maybe not. But with a college basketball season sorely lacking in alpha dogs, the Blue Devils don’t have as much ground to make up as you think.

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