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Youthful Duke team continues to make ACC blue

Like most ACC basketball addicts, I've been waiting for the inevitable: Duke's downfall from the top of the ACC.

After starting the season with two losses, the close games that followed with Illinois, DePaul and Michigan and the parity in the ACC this year, I was certain that some Conference team, preferably Virginia, could knock off the Blue Devils in their first run through the league.

That opinion was confirmed by the fact that Duke was only favored to win the game against the Cavaliers by I was amazed that in all the ACC games this season, Duke has led by no more than five at the half and that even lowly Florida State managed to hold a halftime lead against the Blue Devils.

Wednesday night, when Duke faced N.C. State at Cameron Indoor Stadium, it seemed like the inevitable might finally happen.

The Wolfpack fought hard against the Blue Devils, sending Duke to its fourth overtime period of this year. But just as Duke has done in every ACC game thus far, the Blue Devils stepped up their play exactly when it counted.

Looking at the Duke team on paper, they really shouldn't be this good yet. They shouldn't be able to fight their way back to win several nail-biters, especially with the number of freshmen on the team. After all, rookies aren't supposed to know how to win close games yet. Duke is loaded with players who just are not ready to play ball in this Conference.

Rookie point guard Jason Williams has no suitable replacement on the Duke bench, unless you count J.D. Simpson - who was only on the team to begin with because his best pal was former Devil center Chris Burgess, now departed for Utah - or Andre Buckner, who was not offered a single Division I scholarship until William Avery left for the pros and Duke got desperate.

When Chris Carrawell or Shane Battier needs to take a breather, the first man off the bench is Mike Dunleavy, Jr., who is actually a fine basketball player. But after that, Matt Christensen or Nick Horvath come in and the quality of play really goes down.

I kept hoping that Battier or Williams would get in foul trouble early against Virginia, opening the Blue Devils up to the kind of personnel struggles that the Cavaliers faced last season. No such luck. And come to think of it, no ACC team has had that kind of luck either.

Or maybe after 36 minutes of basketball, the Duke team would five points and that Virginia sent Duke to overtime.

get tired and another team could capitalize on that weakness. But again, the Blue Devils don't seem to show much exhaustion during games.

Maybe the team that was so used to winning last year would get frustrated when trailing and the play would suffer.

I've been hoping that one of these things would happen but it just hasn't. After 36 minutes of basketball, Duke is pumped up and ready for more. Instead of moping when the going gets tough, the Devils pick up their game to near perfection. Players who struggled with their shots manage to make huge baskets when it really matters and they don't make the kinds of mistakes that may have happened earlier in the game.

Will someone in the ACC beat Duke eventually this season? I think so. I'm very hopeful that Duke's first ACC loss in over a year will come Feb. 5 as the Cavaliers hand the Blue Devils a big blow at Cameron.

But despite my optimism and appreciation of the Cavs, I also know that Duke is difficult to knock off. While the Blue Devils have made their share of mistakes this season, the close victories that Duke has had so far this season don't indicate a team on its way down. Instead, they point to a team that has learned very well how to win, which is the biggest strength a team could have.