EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Two years ago, Tyler Thornton was one of the chosen ones, a 19-game starter for Duke as a sophomore.
Now his biggest role comes off the court, where he plays understudy to Seth Curry.
Curry, you see, doesn't practice much. He's got a shin injury to his left leg and an ankle injury to the right. The ankle will get better over time; the shin won't. It's a matter of managing it, keeping Curry fresh by keeping him off the court until the lights go on.
But that can mess with a team's rhythm and continuity, which is where Thornton comes in. He essentially stands in for Curry during practice, and then when it counts, he takes a seat on the bench, waiting for his name to be called.
"In a lot of ways, Tyler has been the most important part of managing Seth's injury," coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We're fortunate in that we've got really outstanding players."
Krzyzewski was talking about talent; he could have been talking about personality.
Duke is now 9-0, courtesy of a 90-67 pasting of Temple at the Izod Center, Krzyzewski's second-favorite home court (he's 21-1 here). The Blue Devils don't usually sneak up on people, but somehow this season they have, stunning folks with their hot start against seriously good competition -- Duke is 3-0 against top-5 teams; the rest of the country is 0-36.
Mason Plumlee has inserted himself into the national player of the year conversation, and Duke's balanced attack has been lauded across the country and even in the Bahamas.
Yet what separates this team right now is what a guy like Thornton is doing -- understanding what part of the puzzle he is.
He gets his role, and so do all of the Blue Devils.
Usually teams in December are still trying to figure out who they are and individuals are trying to figure out where they fit in. Heck, in some places, roster changeover requires "Hello My Name Is" tags.
Yet the Blue Devils know who they are, they know where they fit and they are perfectly comfortable with all of it.
"I think it's maturity," Curry said. "We've got older guys, and they know what their responsibilities are and that spreads to everyone else."
Krzyzewski has been around plenty of good teams, a few great ones and even a few bad ones. What separates them aside from talent, he said, is that sort of awareness coupled with a tenacity that renders the verb "play" woefully inadequate and polite.
"The really outstanding teams wanted to fight," he said. "They didn't want to play. They wanted to compete and fight."
Whether or not this Duke team fits into that category will be determined in the spring, but no one will dispute this version already is silly good. Trying to find a flaw is like looking for an imperfection in the Mona Lisa. It's there, but you have to search.
Against Temple, the Blue Devils were great from the outside (36 points on 12-of-20 shooting from the arc) and inside (28 points). They had 19 assists on 28 made field goals and committed but six turnovers. Four players were in double figures, led by Curry's 23.
The Blue Devils, of course, will look for the flaws. They still need more help from their bench (only 15 points against the Owls) and better defensive rebounding (Temple pulled down 19 offensive boards).
"Winning covers up a lot," Mason Plumlee said. "When you're losing, it's easy to point out the problems. We know we're not there yet. We know we can get a lot better."
And the scary news for others -- they probably are about to. Krzyzewski said that freshman Marshall Plumlee, Mason's little brother, will likely play in Duke's next game on Dec. 19. Out since Oct. 12 with a stress fracture, he presumably will help fix two of those flaws -- he's a 7-foot big body who loves to rumble in the low post.
"He's a 7-footer who actually wants to be a center," Krzyzewski said. "Until he was injured, he was our sixth man."
When Plumlee comes back and becomes that sixth man, the rest of the bench players, of course, will drop down a spot in the rotation.
And odds are they won't care.
That, more than Mason Plumlee, torrid 3-point shooting or a great coach, is what makes this Duke team especially good.