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December 10, 2005The calendar still says December, but today's matchup between Duke and Texas feels more like a Final Four matchup.
The nation's top two ranked teams will meet on a neutral floor at the Meadowlands in what should be a terrific measuring stick game for both teams, but especially for Duke.
The Devils are undefeated at 8-0, but they've been fortunate to reach that mark. Close wins over Drexel, Memphis, and Indiana were stiff challenges, and only a miracle shot from Sean Dockery saved Duke in the ACC opener against Virginia Tech.
Meanwhile, despite one close call against West Virginia, Texas has been dominating against a schedule made up mostly of lightweights.
Who will emerge from today's showdown still unbeaten and the new number one team when the new week starts?
The answer to that question will largely be determined by how Duke counters Texas guard Daniel Gibson.
Gibson is probably the best individual player Duke has faced this season and definitely the best guard. His athleticism and play making ability poses some concerns for a Duke lineup that has lacked perimeter quickness since the injury to DeMarcus Nelson.
Sean Dockery will need the defensive game of his life to put the brakes on Gibson, who is capable of taking over a game against any team. Dockery's recent play has been essential to Duke's winning streak.
Not only has he been his usual self on defense, but he's been shouldering some of the scoring load of late as well. He'll need an all around great effort against Gibson.
The challenges for Duke go much deeper than just Gibson though. Texas has two proven players under the basket in sophomore LaMarcus Aldridge and senior Brad Buckman.
The two are combining for better than 30 points per game and nearly 20 rebounds.
Combine that production with the return of a now academically eligible P.J. Tucker, and Texas boasts one of the nation's most feared starting fives.
For Duke to emerge with a victory, they have to get All-American play from their two All-Americans.
J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams have shown they are capable of putting this Duke team on their backs, and they both will have to be at their best.
For Williams, that especially means staying out of foul trouble. Duke doesn't have the depth of personnel to compete around the rim if Williams can't stay on the floor.
Texas will likely make it a goal to make The Landlord be active defensively early on, hoping to draw a couple of quick whistles.
Duke needs better than average production from either Josh McRoberts or Lee Melchionni as well.
McRoberts has yet to have his coming out party, which is partly cause for some of Duke's offensive struggles. It is vital that he be active on the boards against a Texas team that has mauled its opponents rebounding the ball.
Duke has been outrebounded on average by two boards per game. McRoberts needs to help Williams in that category to beat Texas.
Melchionni has not been as deadly from three point range as he was toward the end of last season. His shooting last year was a huge contribution to an overachieving Duke team.
Right now, opponents are not respecting anybody but Redick from long range. Melchionni needs to knock a couple of open looks down today to draw some attention from the defense.
On paper, this has all the looks of a loss for Duke. The Devils have played well in spurts but the level of consistency one would expect from the nation's number one team has not been there.
However, Coach K seems to have a unique ability to get his team to play its best when nobody expects them to. An impressive win today would go a long way in silencing some of the early season critics.
Because of Coach K, and because I'm on record saying I won't pick against Redick and Williams until somebody proves they can be beaten, I'm going to stick with the Devils, regardless of the way the matchups look on paper.