In early December, the AP rankings mean about as much as SAT scores mean to John Calipari. That being said, a fair amount of conversation has arose about the #1 and #2 teams in the country: Indiana and Duke. Arguments can be made for both teams, but the debate has one, central theme: “What One Team Has Accomplished versus What You’re Pretty Sure The Other Team Can Accomplish” as Robbi Pickeral put it on ESPN earlier this morning.
“What One Team Has Accomplished”: On the one side, you have a Duke team who has done everything you could possibly ask a team to do entering December. The Blue Devils have knocked off former #2 Louisville, former #3 Kentucky, and former #4 Ohio State all within the first two or three weeks of the young season. When discussing tournament resumés, if that is even worth doing at this juncture, Duke is easily the top team in the country.
“What You’re Pretty Sure the Other Team Can Accomplish”: On the other side, you have the #1 ranked Indiana Hoosiers. The country’s deepest and most talented (arguably) team on paper, the Hoosiers entered the season as everyone’s preseason #1. Aside from a nail-biter in Brooklyn against a very underrated Georgetown team, Indiana has handled their business and shown little to no vulnerability as the nation’s top team.
For now, the AP rankings and our perceptions of them are merely speculation. Speaking of speculation, what if the season ended today and pitted Indiana and Duke in the national championship game? Would Indiana’s strengths on paper prevail against Duke’s battle-tested group, or would the Dukies prove too much for the resurgent Hoosiers?
Just for picks and dribbles, I’ve broken down the head-to-head matchup based on what I’ve seen from each squad so far this season. Remember, this is my opinion and there’s a comments section for you to provide yours. Use it (Casual Gamer Reed need not comment).
Tom Crean’s “we have 7 or 8 starters on this team” theory makes breakdowns like this a little complicated, but for the sake of argument, we’ll pin Ferrel, Hulls, and Oladipo up against Curry, Cook, and Sulaimon.
- Yogi Ferrell has shown outstanding vision and ball security for a freshman point guard. Under the wing of senior leader Jordan Hulls, Ferrell has embraced his identity quickly and has helped the team in a variety of ways on both sides of the ball. He is a pass first point guard with tremendous athleticism and great team defensive ability. He shows high basketball intelligence, but his low-volume, low-percentage shooting may allow defenses to play off him a little more going forward.
- Jordan Hulls has been nothing short of a beast so far this season. We all know Jordan is a lights-out shooter from distance, but most impressive has been his more complete game this season. He’s shown elite passing ability and has expanded his scoring repertoire. All things considered, Jordan’s most important contribution to the team may be intangible. He is the fearless senior leader of the Hoosiers and really exudes the Hoosier spirit. What he lacks in size and athleticism, he makes up for in effort and basketball intelligence.
- Victor Oladipo, for my money, has been the most impressive of the bunch so far this season. His speed, athleticism, and high-motor are electrifying. He has the ability to take over portions of the game with his ability to create turnovers and convert on the fast break. Vic is one of the premiere defenders in the country and can play/defend 3 or 4 positions on the floor. Not every coach has a guy like this, but every coach wants one. As long as he can keep his passion from negatively affecting his game, I like Oladipo as Indiana’s x-factor as the season progresses.
- Seth Curry really needs no introduction. He is a highly skilled scorer who can light it up for 20+ on any given night.
However, his health has become an issue as of late. He suffered an ankle injury in the game against Ohio State and was forced to sit out the game against Delaware, although it may have been more precautionary in nature as Duke didn’t need Curry’s services to take down the Blue Hens. Either way, it’s something to monitor going forward.
- Quinn Cook has been outstanding in the first few games for the Blue Devils. He seems to really turn it on in key games, as he’s posted his best performances against Minnesota, VCU, Ohio State, and Louisville. Also, we’ve really seen him grow since the Kentucky game early in the year. Turnovers continue to be a problem for the young guard, however, and he’ll need to protect the ball if the Blue Devils are going to make a deep run.
- Rasheed Sulaimon has been under the microscope all season long. Many speculated whether the freshman guard would be able to rise to the occasion this year. So far, he has been nothing short of impressive. He has protected the ball well and really attacks the boards for a guard, which isn’t surprising given his 6’4” frame. However, his ability to fill it up, especially from long range, is what makes him a special player. He’s scored double digit points in all but his first collegiate game.
The Verdict: Slight edge to Indiana due to experience, defense, and intangibles.
Again just to clear the air, I’m pitting Indiana’s Zeller, Watford, and Sheehy up against Duke’s Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly. The outcome of an Indiana-Duke matchup would likely be decided by this group, which features Duke’s twin-tower senior leadership group and arguably the best player in the country in Cody Zeller.
- Cody Zeller is the best big man in the country. As long as he stays out of foul trouble, he is going to dominate down low. You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him. Zeller may face his biggest challenge in a matchup with Mason Plumlee, who may be the only player in the nation who can even come close to matching Cody’s combination of size and ability to run the floor.
- Christian Watford is a tough matchup for anyone and has ice in his veins; just ask Kentucky. He’s a streaky shooter with incredible range for a 6’9” forward, but also uses his size to dominate the glass. He struggles picking his spots at times, but is as close to a lock from the free throw stripe as you’ll find in a forward. If he can learn to penetrate instead of settling for jumpers, he could add a whole new element to his already dynamic game.
- Will Sheehy has a very similar game to his freshman roommate Oladipo. He brings intense enthusiasm and passion to the game, but that’s not all. He doesn’t shy away from the occasional posterization, but he also has a sneaky effective jumper from mid-range. He plays great defense from the perimeter as well. Like Oladipo, he needs to avoid making emotional mistakes in the heat of the moment. Aside from that, he’s developed a very clean game.
- Mason Plumlee is similar to Zeller in the sense that there’s nothing to say that hasn’t already been said. He’s a heady player who can get out and run or operate in the post. He may also own claim to the most impressive first 8 games of the season. Against a grueling early season schedule, Plumlee has average 20 points and 11 rebounds per game. He is a force in the middle and a senior leader for the Blue Devils and might just be the national player of the year if the season ended today.
- Ryan Kelly is Plumlee’s partner in crime down low, but boasts a unique skill set. Kelly isn’t much of a force on the boards for a 6’11” forward, but has outstanding range. Similar to Watford, he shoots the three-ball like a guard and can get hot at any moment. His presence isn’t overbearing in the post, but he is an underrated on-ball defender.
The Verdict: Again, slight edge to Indiana. Two words: Depth and Zeller.
At first, this section was called ‘bench players’, but it just didn’t feel right. I’d like to think Tom Crean would be proud of the ‘role players’ moniker.
- Indiana already has incredible depth with the ‘six starters’ previously mentioned, but they’ve gotten some surprising production off the bench as well this season. Remy Abell, Jeremy Hollowell, Maurice Creek, and Austin Etherington have all provided meaningful minutes in the first 8 games. Some of these minutes may have to be adjusted for inflation considering all the blowout wins Indiana has been a part of thus far, but they’ve made the most of their time. As a group, they’ve played solid team defense and protected the ball well. Tom Crean has also spoke highly of Hanner Parea and Peter Jurkin, two players we haven’t seen yet due to NCAA suspensions. Parea in particular should add even more size down low.
- Duke’s starters have logged a ton of minutes, which has really limited the production from their bench. The three consistent contributors have been Tyler Thorton, Josh Hairston, and Amile Jefferson. Thorton has posted decent all-around numbers in just over 20 minutes per game, but has struggled with turnovers. Hairston and Jefferson are both averaging under 10 minutes per game and making little contribution on the stat sheet. It appears as if Duke will move forward dumping 30+ minutes on their five starters, giving them a blow only when necessary. One has to wonder what type of effect this will have on their team late in the season, especially in the tournament when a deep bench is such an advantage.
The Verdict: Clear edge to Indiana for depth and volume alone, if nothing else.
Admittedly, even at the conclusion of this breakdown, we haven’t learned anything that we didn’t already know. Indiana is the better team on paper due to their depth, athleticism, and balance. Unfortunately for Indiana, the best team on paper is rarely the team that ends up wearing the crown at the end of the season. However, the best team on paper did take home the title last year, so that’s reassuring, or at least it would be if it was any team besides Kentucky. Duke definitely has the veteran leadership, size, and scoring ability to make a deep run in the tournament, if not win it.
Nothing can be decided in November or December, that is for sure. Once these two teams get into conference play, we’ll have a much clearer picture, especially with Indiana in the loaded Big Ten. Also take out the microscopes on February 13th, when Duke takes on UNC, a team Indiana absolutely decimated at Assembly Hall.
Questions to be Answered Going Forward
1. How do they deal with the pressure of being #1?
2. How do they navigate through the toughest conference in the country when Big Ten play begins?
3. How will other teams key in on Zeller as the season progresses?
1. Can they continue to lean or 5 or 6 guys to do it all?
2. Can their young guards continue to perform at such a high level?
3. Is Mason Plumlee really this good?