It’s possible that Tuesday night’s duel between No. 2 Ohio State (6-0) and No. 4 Duke (7-0) in Columbus will determine the nation’s top team.
If one-loss North Carolina knocks off Wisconsin and Kentucky this week, voters may choose the winner of this matchup to occupy the No. 1 slot when the next polls are released (assuming the victor remains unblemished). But even if the Tar Heels or Wildcats own the top post in the coming days, this should be the week that Duke and Ohio State acquire the necessary street cred to warrant consideration as the nation’s best team.
We’ve been so busy buzzing about the Wildcats and Tar Heels that we’ve overlooked -- relatively speaking -- teams such as Duke and Ohio State in discussions about the national championship.
The Buckeyes brought back Jared Sullinger, arguably the best returning player in the country. And despite losing two key seniors -- David Lighty and Jon Diebler -- Ohio State is a more talented team this season. Aaron Craft has blossomed on both ends of the floor (5.5 assists per game, 3.5 steals per game) and, in his second season, Deshaun Thomas is averaging 12.3 points per game and making 81 percent of his free throws.
Big Sullinger was very good. Slimmer Sullinger (18.8 points, 10.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game) is even better. And William Buford (17.7 ppg) continues to carve out one of the best four-year careers in school history.
But outside of an 81-74 win over an imbalanced Florida team, the Buckeyes haven’t faced any major tests this season.
That hasn’t been the case for the Blue Devils, who beat Tennessee, Michigan and Kansas to capture the Maui Invitational title.
Their start is impressive because of the dramatic transition of their nucleus compared to last season. Mike Krzyzewski relied on veterans Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith last season. Kyrie Irving, in limited time, was the best freshman and arguably America’s best player when he was healthy.
But all three are gone, so Duke has had to rely on a young crew that’s gradually gaining the mojo that will be necessary to fight for the ACC and national titles.
Seth Curry is shooting 57.1 percent on 3-pointers and is leading the Blue Devils with 15.1 points per game. Mason Plumlee is a double-double man (11.4 points, 10.0 rebounds), and he’s a tougher player than he was last season. Ryan Kelly can hurt teams inside and outside (41 percent from beyond the arc), and Andre Dawkins is dangerous from the perimeter, too, connecting on 45 percent of his 3-point attempts.
Austin Rivers has been criticized, mostly because of his early struggles and the way they contrast the hype that preceded the start of his collegiate career. But he’s playing in a system without a true point guard. That’s an adjustment for that entire backcourt. And yet, Rivers is averaging 14.4 points per game. Most coaches would accept that first-year production.
Ohio State’s numbers
Good: Buckeyes are shooting 52 percent from the field (ninth in the nation).
Bad: 31 percent from beyond the arc.
Ugly: Four of five starters are averaging at least 1.5 turnovers per game.
Good: 46 percent from the beyond the arc.
Bad: Plumlee has made 18 of 41 free throws.
Ugly: Curry and Rivers are averaging a combined 4.4 turnovers per game.
Duke needs: Plumlee to get physical with Sullinger inside. Entering last week’s matchup against Kansas, many figured that Thomas Robinson would push Plumlee around for 40 minutes, and that didn’t happen. Plumlee was just as tough, and down the stretch he made key defensive stops because he matched Robinson’s aggression. And he’ll have to put up a similar fight against Sullinger, who’s a far more polished player than Robinson. Plumlee will obviously get help on defense, but Duke won’t win unless he pressures Sullinger on each possession.
Ohio State needs: Buford to be the X-factor. He’ll cause the biggest matchup issues for the Blue Devils. The 6-foot-6 guard can hit shots from the outside, work off screens and slash if necessary. His versatility and size might be the key to Tuesday’s game.
Prediction: Duke 69, Ohio State 68. I think Duke’s backcourt versatility will be the deciding factor in a tight game. My ESPN.com colleagues apparently disagree.