CHICAGO -- It's not often you hear the words "Duke" and "underrated" used in the same sentence.
After all, this is Duke. If there is a polar opposite from perennially slept-on programs, Duke is it. The Blue Devils' games are on national TV with consistent frequency. Their student section is the most famous in the country. When not busy shilling for a credit card company, their coach is winning gold medals and recruiting top-tier talent. Duke gets plenty of love, and fans -- many of whom rightly or wrongly see some sort of East Coast bias inherent in the Dukies' popularity -- are all too aware of it.
Which is why this feels so weird to write, even though it's true: Duke -- or at least this 2009-10 iteration of Duke -- is underrated.
Now that the Blue Devils have beaten Iowa State, no slouch itself, 86-65 in Chicago Wednesday night, maybe that changes. Maybe Duke starts to catch on nationally, starts to gain the same sort of love bestowed upon Kansas and Texas and Kentucky and Purdue and West Virginia. If so, it's only fair; Duke is statistically better than all of those teams but one. (That one team is Kansas, who barely beat Cornell at home Wednesday night.) Maybe the "Duke is underrated" meme becomes so widely accepted that it starts to get annoying. If so, I apologize for abetting such an annoyance. But it's just true: Duke is better than most people think, and Wednesday night showcased why.
Duke shot 15-of-40 in the first half against ISU and still took an eight-point lead into the half. The Devils followed that minor bit of impressive play -- they usually doesn't shoot so poorly, you know? -- with a torrid 15-of-25 second half. The Cyclones are the seventh-best team in the country at disallowing opponents' free throws; Duke went to the line 11 times in the second half and never missed a shot. It was almost as Mike Krzyzewski's team decided to flip the "Let's be awesome" switch, and no matter what Iowa State could have done -- and this was probably not Iowa State's best performance anyway -- it wouldn't have mattered.
The visual reasons for this dominance are clear. Jon Scheyer is ruthlessly efficient at the point guard spot; his 31 points came on 10-of-19 shooting and 7-for-7 from the free throw line. Kyle Singler is one of the most well-rounded offensive players in the country. Nolan Smith is an emerging star. And freshman role players like Miles and Mason Plumlee and Andre Dawkins and give the Devils a well-rounded, balanced, and deep team capable of playing uptempo or grind-it-out.
All of that was evident Wednesday night. You didn't have to look too hard. That's usually the case with Duke, as prominent a college basketball program as the United States of Hoops has. If the Devils keep playing like this, the secret won't last long. The 2009-10 team will be just as famous as the rest.
Miscellaneous postgame notes before the blizzard hits:
1. It was a Chicago kind of night at the United Center. Mike Krzyzewski attended Weber High School in Chicago before his early-70s days at West Point under Bob Knight. Jon Scheyer was a preps legend at Glenbrook North High School in Chicago's north suburbs before attending Duke. And Iowa State's Chris Colvin went to Whitney Young High School in Chicago, where, alongside Marcus Jordan, Colvin won an Illinois state championship in 2009.
All three fared well in front of their hometown crowds. Krzyzewski won, obviously. Colvin contributed decent minutes off the bench and had a brilliant crossover-dish drive that ended in an Iowa State dunk in the first half; it might have been Iowa State's most exciting moment of the night. And Scheyer? Well, 31 points on 10-of-19 shooting is not a bad way to greet your hometown. (When I go home, I sit around with my family and pray I don't see too many awkward high school acquaintances at the bar. When Jon Scheyer goes home, he dominates in the same arena Michael Jordan once called his own. Pretty much the same thing, I think.)
Most of the postgame talk was about Scheyer's big night, and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski wasn't afraid to get sentimental on his senior.
"I love Jon," he said. "Jon is right there among the special young men that I've had the opportunity to coach. His family is fantastic. To have a family in this day and age that just says here, here's my son, take him and do what you need to do to develop him into a player and a man, that's special. ... And when the kid's on your side? Holy mackerel, let's have a party."
As far as parties go, Scheyer's and Krzyzewski's Wednesday night wasn't so bad.
2. Iowa State isn't the kind of program that gets much national broadcast attention; if tradition holds, you won't see Jay Bilas calling many more Cyclones games this year, at least until (if) ISU makes the tournament. Which is both a blessing and a curse for Cyclones forward Craig Brackins. Wednesday night's showcase meant a national audience for Brackins' player-of-the-year-caliber talent. This is a good thing. Brackins ended his night with 12 points and three rebounds, well below his averages in both. This is a bad thing.
The good news for Brackins is that his interior defense almost singlehandedly kept Duke at bay in the first half, and those four blocks on the stat sheet look awfully impressive. But Brackins will only get a few more chances to impress a national audience this year, if any. Tonight might feel like a missed opportunity.
3. But seriously, that blizzard is coming, and I've got to go. Pardon me while I strap on the old-school moon boots and make my way into the wilderness. And I promise, I'll stop complaining about the weather in Chicago soon. (As soon as the weather in Chicago gets nicer, that is. You have a couple of months to go.)