RALEIGH, N.C. -- Duke usually has North Carolina to play off of within the ACC, a team that can shoulder the burden of being a big game for the rest of the league.
Not this season. Not when North Carolina looks no different than the rest of the muddled lot.
Duke is the marquee game for every ACC program, the only remaining ranked team, the last quality win for the members as they try to mount an NCAA tournament at-large campaign.
Last Wednesday, Florida State got its signature win, beating Duke in Tallahassee for the Seminoles’ first marquee victory of the season (it’s hard to put Baylor in that category right now). It provided a reason for the Noles to be optimistic moving forward. FSU beat NC State following the win over Duke, and then Miami on the road Wednesday and seems to have suddenly found momentum.
NC State was desperate for the same elixir Wednesday at the RBC Center. But it didn’t happen as the Wolfpack trailed by double-digits for most of the game, losing 92-78. They are still searching for a marquee win this season and it’s hard to find one remaining on the schedule.
Maryland will have another shot against Duke on Feb. 2 in College Park to make its season. Miami has a chance at home on Feb. 13. Virginia Tech will likely put all its efforts toward the same thing on Feb. 26 in Blacksburg and then North Carolina -- which at least has a win over Kentucky -- will take its turns on Feb. 9 and March 5.
“Every time we play one of our [ACC] teams, we’re the one they need to beat,’’ Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “More so now than ever. It’s usually been somebody else [and Duke]. Now it’s just us. We’ll see if that makes us better or not.’’
Duke is using the ACC to discover who it is and how it will play in preparation for another national title run.
The one near-certainty is that superstar freshman point guard Kyrie Irving is not going to be a part of it, barring some sort of rapid recovery from his right toe ligament injury suffered against Butler on Dec. 4.
Irving was wearing a boot in the locker room after the game, laughing with teammates and fitting in as if he were still the focal point. But even if he were to get the boot off in the next few weeks, it may not matter because Irving would have to go through rehab long before practice and or a game. And at what cost would Irving or Duke put him on the floor? Just for six games?
“He’s probably not coming back,’’ Krzyzewski said to ESPN.com on Wednesday.
Krzyzewski tinkered with a variety of lineups against the Wolfpack, trying to see who could contribute. He got quality production from role players like Tyler Thornton, Josh Hairston and Ryan Kelly, as well as continued improvement from Andre Dawkins. Notice there was no mention of Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith in that last sentence. They are anchors of this team and the expectation is that they will produce. But to be a championship team, the Blue Devils will need contributions for the other eight.
Smith said there was an emphasis with the Blue Devils in practice to get more players involved. He also said they needed to be more aggressive at the start, unlike the Florida State first half.
“We’ve been running more motion offense so no one gets frustrated and everyone feels involved in the offense,’’ Thornton said.
“It’s good to see all nine players step up for us,’’ Kelly said. “I think we came out with a sense of urgency.’’
And in part that’s why the Blue Devils had to shake up some of the rotations, to free up Smith and take some of the burden off him. Smith still finished with 22 points and Singler 18, but the team had a more versatile look with the other seven contributing.
“We needed to switch Nolan’s position around and not just keep him on the ball,’’ Krzyzewski said. “We can’t have him dribble the ball up court and he creates it. We need different opportunities for us so it’s harder to guard him. We’ve got to develop a team and that’s what we’re doing right now. Most teams do this in November and early December. We did that with Kyrie. Now we have to do it on the fly.’’
Krzyzewski said this was an unusual situation to change the look of a team -- from one that could fly up and down with Irving to another that is discovering that it can have other scorers facing up and making shots or imploring the Plumlee brothers to be more effective (Mason had six blocks against NC State).
“This is an unusual situation. Kyrie is one of the top players in the country,’’ Krzyzewski said. “He’s not this little schmuck. He’s good.’’
Krzyzewski said the team as constituted wasn’t the same and shouldn’t be compared to the one that beat Kansas State, Marquette, Michigan State and Butler early in the season.
“Maybe we wouldn’t have won those games [without Irving],’’ Krzyzewski said. “Now we’ve got to use the ACC. We’ve got to get better and we’ll see where we’re at the end of February. We can’t worry about the rankings and things like that.’’