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It’s time to return Duke to the Top-25

Surely Duke rejoins the Top 25 this week.

Last week’s upset of No. 13 Louisville wasn’t enough for the Blue Devils to climb out of the ranks of “others” for a third straight week in the Associated Press poll released Feb. 8 after 167 straight weeks in the Top 25. But there is no denying Duke continues to refine its game with its performance against No. 7 Virginia Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Yes, the Blue Devils needed a controversial buzzer-beat by Grayson Allen as he got off a shot without being called for traveling to defeat the Cavaliers 63-62. But even if it had turned out to be a one-point loss to a potential Final Four team, that should have been considered another sign that the Blue Devils continue to trend upward.

Only a week ago there were those predicting a 0-3 stretch for the Blue Devils against Louisville, Virginia and North Carolina on Wednesday at the Dean Dome.

Instead, the Blue Devils are 2-0 with a very real chance to go 3-0. After all, North Carolina is vulnerable. The Tar Heels’ 68-65 win over lowly Boston College to end a two-game losing streak wasn’t exactly reassuring as we look ahead to the ACC’s final regular-season games.

Duke (19-6) has won four straight to climb to 8-4 in ACC play. If the Blue Devils beat North Carolina, they can continue to join the logjam at the top of the standings. That’s a long climb back from being written off with a 3-3 conference mark following a Jan. 18 loss at home to Syracuse and 4-4 after a convincing 80-69 defeat Miami.

As was written here last week, Duke can continue climbing but only if the Blue Devils get open to ignite their three-point field goals. The six-man rotation leaves little room error while relying on only three guys, Allen, Luke Kennard and Brandon Ingram.

But Matt Jones filled in some of the gaps against Virginia, hitting 4-of-5 three-pointers to finish with 14 points. He supported Ingram, who hit 4-of-9 three-pointers for 25 points.

Who would have thought Duke could win with Allen 0-of-4 and Kennard 0-of-1 from three-point range? Duke was 4-of-9 (44.4 percent) from three-point range in the second half. That’s the number they’ve been hovering around in their winning streak.

Defenses won’t be able to get away with leaving Jones open if he can keep up his long-range shooting down the stretch.

Another element for Duke to watch is how much more Ingram can elevate his game. He continues to assert himself with his vast talent. Whatever freshman wall he hit during Duke’s struggles appears to have been cleared for the remainder of the season.

But the shadow that continues to hang over the Blue Devils is potential fatigue entering the NCAA Tournament. Allen played 40 minutes, center Marshall Plumlee 39, Ingram 38, Jones 36 and point guard Derryck Thornton 34.

The combined minutes off the bench was 13–12 for Kennard and one for Chris Jeter, a 6-foot-10, 240-pound freshman who is not ready for this level of play physically or mentally.

After Duke’s upset of Louisville a week ago, Allen said the Blue Devils couldn’t have won such a game two weeks earlier. He can say the same about beating Virginia. The competitive game Duke displayed against Virginia demonstrates the upset of Louisville was about more than the Cardinals playing poorly in the first half.

Two weeks ago we might not have imagined Duke ranked in the Top 25, but we can now.

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