It’s time to start paying attention to Duke.

After decades of Duke teams under Mike Krzyzewski peaking at the right time, perhaps Duke’s improvement of late is simply taken for granted. Maybe folks just played the theory of averages, and banked on the fact that in college basketball, as freshmen gain experience, talent tends to find a way to win games, despite the limitations of youth. Some may have even shrugged and said “Well, it’s Duke, of course they are good.”

Whatever the reasons, Duke has flown conspicuously under the radar over the past month, all while winning 6 of their past 8 games after a middling 14-7 start. Call it 6 of 8 with an asterisk too, because 1 of Duke’s 2 losses in that span came in overtime at No. 6 Virginia as well, hardly a sin under any circumstances but in this instance, a travesty involving a missed call on a play that should have sent Duke freshman Kyle Filipowski to the free throw line with a chance to win the game in regulation.

Monday night, Duke did what good teams do, and hammered a bad team, defeating Louisville 79-62 at Cameron Indoor Stadium to give the Blue Devils their third consecutive victory. As the ACC Tournament in Greensboro nears, Duke is becoming formidable.

While Jon Scheyer’s first Duke team is improving collectively for a number of reasons, the most stirring and important development has been the play of 5-star freshman Dariq Whitehead.

Dariq Whitehead’s improvement alters Duke’s March ceiling

No Blue Devil has looked better of late than Whitehead, the 2022 Naismith High School Player of the Year and the crown jewel in Duke’s top-ranked 2022 recruiting class. Since returning from a leg injury earlier this month, Whitehead has been on a shooting tear, scoring efficiently while also playing the best defense of his brief collegiate career.

Whitehead is making shots at a prodigious clip, shooting 48% from beyond the arc in ACC play. He’s 10-for-19 from beyond the arc since returning from injury, and that includes a 1-of-5 off night against Louisville on Monday. Whitehead isn’t just making shots. He’s taking the right ones, as these two sequences in Duke’s rout of Syracuse at the JMA Wireless Dome Saturday night demonstrate.

Illinois transfer Jacob Grandison can hit 3s at an efficient clip, as can Jeremy Roach and Mark Mitchell.  Filipowksi hits just enough (29%) to make defenses stretch the floor, and Ty Proctor is a gunslinger who many NCAA Tournament previews will identify as the “X-factor.” With due respect to Proctor and his 30.8% make rate, the formula for Duke in March is more Whitehead jump shots and less of the streaky Proctor.

Whitehead’s range forces aggressive closeouts, which creates drive-and-finish opportunities. He’s hard to guard, as we’ve seen this season.

Whitehead also gives Duke a bucket getter at crunch time, which reduces the need for Jon Scheyer to draw up plays designed to free up Filipowski in the post, simultaneously forcing defenses to account for both a wing who can create his own shot and a big man who is adept at getting to the free throw line. Options in crunch time is a pathway to an extended run in March.

Whitehead’s ability to create and hit his own shots also reduces the risk that Duke goes on the extended scoring droughts that plagued the team throughout December and January. Duke went 4 straight games in January shooting under 40%; since Whitehead’s return from injury, the Blue Devils have not had a game under that number. If Whitehead forces defenses to account for him with one of their best defenders, it changes the entire way the Blue Devils can attack opponents. This was the vision Scheyer had, we should remember. His first Duke team was intended to be built around the rock of Roach in the backcourt and Whitehead, the aggressive scorer out of basketball factory Montverde Academy (Florida) who was as tenacious a defender as he was a driver and attacker.

Whitehead is bringing it defensively, too. Synergy grades him out as “excellent” in on-ball defense, 1 of only 2 Duke defenders earning that designation (Filipowski). With 5 steals in the past 4 games, Whitehead is becoming a force to be reckoned with on both sides of the ball, and at 6-7, 225, he is big enough and quick enough to defend 4 spots on the floor.

It’s fashionable, likely due to the collapse of preseason No. 1 North Carolina, the disrespect afforded Miami and the fact Virginia is, as always, regarded as boring even if brutally efficient, to knock the top of the ACC. When filling out your brackets, do so at your own risk. This Duke team, like the Miami team that was the last squad to beat them fair and square, has a Final Four ceiling.

That wasn’t the case a month ago, but Scheyer’s first Duke team is coming into its own as its top recruit comes quickly into his.

Bracket Watch: Late February Edition

It’s late February, which means we need to revisit where ACC teams stand in the bracket.

First, a note on methodology.

The ACC has been a bracketology roller-coaster all season, with the No. 1 overall seed (North Carolina) projected in the preseason, as many as 7 teams considered “In” in early January, and as many as 5 teams on the bubble, depending on which bracket you look at, in late February.

At Saturday Road, we rely heavily on Bracket Matrix, which aggregates all the bracketologists, ranks them based on their accuracy over the past few seasons, and generates a composite seed list. We also rely heavily on Lukas Harkins of Heat Check CBB, whose bracket has finished in the top 10 from an accuracy standpoint in each of the past 3 contested NCAA Tournaments. For perspective, ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has finished in the top 10 just once in that timespan. We’ll use Harkins for matchups, and the Matrix to tell you where a team sits on the bubble as of February 22.

Locks (1-6 seeds): Virginia, Miami

The Cavaliers and the Hurricanes are, at present, the lone “locks.” Duke is on the precipice of being a lock, and might be by the time we write next week, but the Blue Devils have just a bit of work to do. The Matrix has Virginia as a 3 seed and Miami as a 5 seed, based on their composite seed list.

At Heat Check, Harkins has the following matchups projected for the Hoos and the Hurricanes:

  • 3 Virginia vs. 14 UC Irvine (South Region) — 1 seed in that region is Alabama
  • 5 Miami vs. 12 Oral Roberts (East Region) — 1 seed in that region is Purdue

Should be In (7-8 seeds): Duke

Duke’s 20 wins put them on the precipice of being a “lock.” Duke is just 2-6 in Quad 1 games, but they are 29th in the NET. Every team in the NET era ranked in the top 30 has made the field. The Matrix seeds Duke 7th, though Harkins has them as an 8 seed currently, with the following matchup:

  • 8 Duke vs. 9 Rutgers (Midwest Region) — 1 seed in that region is Kansas

Work to Do (9 seed): NC State

NC State’s 21-win record includes a 7-7 mark against Quad 1 and 2 competition. The Wolfpack also have 0 losses against Quad 1 and 2. As a result, they should feel mostly safe about where they stand as the ACC Tournament nears. That said, the 9 seed spot traditionally means a team can slip to “First Four Out” category if enough goes wrong, and as a result, NC State remains narrowly in the “Work to Do” category. The Matrix has the Wolfpack slated as the second 9 seed, behind Arkansas of the SEC. Lukas Harkins is less confident in the Pack, and has them as a 10 seed, with the following matchup:

  • 10 NC State vs. 7 Maryland (East Region) – 1 seed in that region is Purdue

The Bubble: Pittsburgh (In), North Carolina (First Four Out), Clemson (First Four Out), Wake Forest (Under Consideration)

A messy bubble in the ACC, with one notable update from our early February look at the bubble. Gone from consideration? Virginia Tech, which lost at Georgia Tech last week and now almost certainly must win the ACC Tournament again to return to the Big Dance. Jim Boeheim and Syracuse are also “out,” having blown a huge opportunity at home over the weekend against Duke. It looks like the NIT for both programs, barring big runs in Greensboro.

Four ACC teams could still get in, per The Matrix. Pitt, Clemson, Wake Forest, and 2022 national finalist North Carolina are all still “under consideration.” In the composite bracket, both North Carolina (First Team Out) and Clemson are in the “First Four Out” range. The Tar Heels likely need to win out to feel good about their Selection Sunday chances before the ACC Tournament. Clemson may need to win out and get help elsewhere. Wake Forest is a fascinating case, because while the Demon Deacons have just 1 Quad 1 win, they do have 4 Quad 2 wins, and 2 more Quad 1 opportunities, beginning Wednesday night at NC State. Win both of their Quad 1 games remaining and they may be able to play their way in without winning the ACC Tournament.

The one team that is safe is Pittsburgh, which sits as a 10 seed in The Matrix. Harkins is even higher on the Panthers, who have 4 Quad 1 wins. Harkins places Jeff Capel’s team safely in the field as a 9, with the following matchup:

  • 9 Pittsburgh vs. 8 Missouri (West Region) – 1 seed in that region is Houston

The other teams are out, at least for now, but there’s still enough hoops to play to change fortunes.