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The reason why Duke is No. 1 in ‘The Only* ACC Rankings That Matter’

Zion Williamson talks about big win over Virginia

Freshman phenom talks about teamwork and how the Blue Devils came out on top of the unbeaten Cavaliers
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Freshman phenom talks about teamwork and how the Blue Devils came out on top of the unbeaten Cavaliers

Duke plays defense.

More specifically, Duke plays traditional Duke defense — man-to-man, Bobby-Knight-coaching-tree, West-Point-Mike-Krzyzewski style defense.

That’s what makes this talented Duke team different and it’s what makes Duke great. But even the most ardent of Duke fans could not have predicted how well this group of newcomers would be able to defend.

It starts with point guard Tre Jones but obviously goes beyond him. The Blue Devils are pressuring the ball and overplaying the passing lanes like all of Krzyzewski’s best teams. Duke leads the country in steal percentage (possessions that end with a steal, according to KenPom’s numbers) and ranks No. 2 in block percentage.

In terms of raw numbers, Duke has two of the six players (Jones and Zion Williamson) in the ACC who average 2.0 steals per game or more and a third (Cam Reddish) who is almost there (1.94). Marques Bolden, Williamson and Jack White all rank in the top 10 in the ACC in blocks.

The inherent problem with one-and-done players is they don’t see the value in playing defense. It’s not their NBA ticket — 3-pointers and mix-tape dunks are. They don’t care enough to put the effort in to defend. See any of Duke’s recent one-and-done models for an example. Scoring is their path, not getting a stop. Hence, the random ACC road losses and early NCAA tournament exits.

This group is obviously different. Duke is No. 6 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating after Saturday’s 72-70 home win, without Jones, over Virginia. Here are the Blue Devils’ pre-tournament KenPom AdjD rankings (in ascending order) since Austin Rivers ushered in the “new new Duke” era in 2012: 72, 39, 77, 37, 85, 39 and 7.

Only last year’s team, which broke Krzyzewski’s character and went zone, had a championship-level defense. This Duke team has that. And with the win over the Wahoos, it also (finally, Joe! You’re the worst, Joe!) has the No. 1 ranking in the “Only* ACC Power Rankings That Matter.”

On with the rest of the rankings:

1. Duke

Record: 15-2, 4-1 ACC

This week: at Pitt (Tuesday), Georgia Tech (Saturday)

An interesting reunion with Jeff Capel on Tuesday and then a “name your score” game with the Yellow Jackets on Saturday.

2. Virginia

Record: 16-1, 4-1 ACC

This week: Wake Forest (Tuesday), at Notre Dame (Saturday)

That Wake game will be “day after your 21st birthday” ugly.

3. UNC

Record: 14-4, 4-1 ACC

This week: Virginia Tech (Monday),

Quick turnaround with the Hokies on Monday but the Tar Heels get the weekend off.

Roy Williams addresses the media following the Tar Heels' win over Notre Dame on Tuesday, January 15, 2019 at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.

4. Syracuse

Record: 13-5, 4-1 ACC

This week: Miami (Thursday), at Virginia Tech (Saturday)

Right where we thought the Orange would be, just not the path.

5. Louisville

Record: 13-5, 4-1 ACC

This week: N.C. State (Thursday), Pittsburgh (Saturday)

There’s a new-car smell to Chris Mack and the Cards. No doubt they’ve freshened up on the bottom third of the league but they also pounded UNC in Chapel Hill.

6. Virginia Tech

Record: 15-2, 4-1 ACC

This week: at UNC (Monday), Syracuse (Saturday)

Not 100 percent sure of what we know about the Hokies. The trip to the Smith Center on Monday night will tell us more.

7. N.C. State

Record: 15-3, 3-2 ACC

This week: at Louisville (Thursday), Clemson (Saturday)

The Wolfpack would like that first half against Wake Forest back.

Notre Dame proved to be the remedy for N.C. State on Saturday. The Wolfpack got a season-high 23 points from C.J. Bryce in a 77-73 road win over the Fighting Irish. (No Audio)

8. Florida State

Record: 13-5, 1-4 ACC

This week: Clemson (Tuesday), at Miami (Sunday)

Man, that loss at Boston College, after leading by 10 at the half, was dumb.

9. Clemson

Record: 11-6, 1-3 ACC

This week: at Florida State (Tuesday), at N.C. State (Tuesday)

Another tough grind this week for the Tigers and then the schedule really opens up on the back nine.

10. Pittsburgh

Record: 12-6, 2-3 ACC

This week: Duke (Tuesday), at Louisville (Saturday)

Unlike Bill Belichick, Krzyzewski doesn’t lose to his coaching proteges often.

11. Boston College

Record: 10-7, 1-4 ACC

This week: at Wake Forest (Sunday)

The Eagles needed that monstrous comeback over FSU for their own sanity.

12. Notre Dame

Record: 11-7, 1-4 ACC

This week: at Georgia Tech (Tuesday), Virginia (Saturday)

Mike Brey’s injury luck is atrocious.

13. Georgia Tech

Record: 10-8, 2-3 ACC

This week: Notre Dame (Tuesday), at Duke (Saturday)

The eligibility of Texas transfer James Banks has been a gift from the basketball gods for an otherwise awful Georgia Tech team.

14. Miami

Record: 9-8, 1-4 ACC

This week: at Syracuse (Thursday), Florida State (Sunday)

There’s not enough mayo, salt and pepper in the world to make a palatable chicken salad out of that roster.

15. Wake Forest

Record: 8-9, 1-4 ACC

This week: at Virginia (Tuesday), Boston College (Saturday)

Ron Wellman is trying to petition the league to get N.C. State on the schedule eight times a year.

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Joe Giglio covers N.C. State and has worked at The N&O since 1995. He has regularly reported on the ACC since 2005.

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