WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The popular game in college basketball right now is guessing who, if anyone, will arise to legitimately challenge the 800-pound, powder-blue gorilla named North Carolina.
The answer is down the road.
The answer is Duke.
Overlooked, off-radar Duke. Really. For the first time since Jeff Capel was a player, not a coach, the Blue Devils are not swimming in overexposure. That's partly due to some major March pratfalls in recent years, and partly due to the sprawling shadow cast from Chapel Hill.
Thus the Devils haven't seen their pictures on the covers of every preview magazine, haven't seen their faces all over "SportsCenter," haven't had their ears filled with premature hype. Duke has been so underplayed -- by Duke standards -- that after starting the season 3-0, it actually lost ground in the AP poll. Slipped from No. 8 to No. 10, which is like filling a balloon with helium and watching it drop to the floor. It defies the laws of physics.
Then the Devils didn't get the usual publicity bump from winning the 2K Sports Classic in Madison Square Garden because the opponents were Southern Illinois and Michigan, which had deprived the affair of its marquee game by upsetting UCLA. Meanwhile, Carolina was savaging everyone in Maui and the Big East was putting 19 teams in the Top 25 and Oklahoma was rolling and Gonzaga was getting love, as well.
This week Duke rose to No. 4 in the rankings -- but on the buzz meter, Duke might as well have been Davidson. Except no Blue Devil was getting anywhere near the pub accorded to Stephen Curry. Which tells you how weird things had gotten.
Until now. With their 76-60 punking of Purdue on the road Tuesday night in the perpetually un-challenging Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the Devils' cover is blown.
So don't get too cocky, Carolina. Duke is back.
Duke is back with one of the most precious commodities in today's transient college basketball: experience. Duke is back with an eight-man core rotation that features two seniors, four juniors, two sophomores and zero freshmen -- a throwback rotation to the olden days when rookies waited their turn. Duke is back without a powerhouse player in the middle, but with so many players who can do so many things that it can make up for that deficiency.
Duke is back with a poised group that can saunter into an old-fashioned Midwestern snake pit, feel the noise press against its ears and smirk in response.
"We're a very confident team," said leading scorer Kyle Singler.
"These guys have games like this every single time they go out," said admiring Purdue coach Matt Painter. "They walk into that atmosphere every single night."
The Devils walked into a charged atmosphere and slapped the Boilermakers right in the face. They never trailed. They led 7-0 as Purdue hyperventilated its way to five missed shots (two of them layups) and three turnovers. The lead was two possessions or greater for the final 31 minutes and 16 seconds. It was double digits for the final 19:12.
This was a Boiler beatdown.
"It's important to get off to a good start in an environment like this," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Purdue was so amped, I think they missed some easy plays and layups. They wanted it so bad."
Duke wanted it, too. But a poised, veteran team can want it and still execute.
The Blue Devils did that, slapping relentless pressure defense and reliable weakside rotations on Purdue's best offensive players, Robbie Hummel and E'Twaun Moore. They blocked out like pros, hammered the Boilers by 20 on the glass. And they routinely got the ball where it needed to go -- primarily in the hands of gifted sophomore Singler.
Singler was one of the few stars of the tremendous prep Class of 2007 who came back for a second season of college ball, and he'll be Duke's bell cow. Tuesday night the kid with the feathery stroke and a banger's mentality punished Purdue with 20 points and 12 rebounds. He played like a very veteran, very talented sophomore.
"Kyle will never be nervous or afraid," Krzyzewski said. "Ever."
Singler is part of a Duke starting lineup that has more athleticism than any in several years. Swingman Gerald Henderson might be the most athletic player in the nation; guard Jon Scheyer is an underrated athlete (ask Moore, whom he locked up much of the night); and sophomore point guard Nolan Smith is a jet.
The insertion of Smith in the starting lineup was the one great chemistry experiment by Krzyzewski, because it sent Greg Paulus to the bench -- for the first time ever, really. Paulus had started 95 games in three years at Duke and had the ball in his hands an awful lot of that time.
Paulus had pretty much been the face of Duke basketball for three seasons. Now, all of a sudden, that face is starting every game next to assistants Chris Collins and Nate James. Tough, one would think, to keep a smile on said face, even if he is the team captain.
"It's a situation -- it's a little bit different," Paulus said, with a hesitation that betrayed more true feeling than his words would allow. "But as far as our team goes, our mindset is to do whatever it takes to win. This being my senior year, I just want to win. It's about the team, and throwing yourself into it."
Said Singler: "Greg's been great this year. We don't see him as a bench player. He's a starter."
Krzyzewski is banking on Paulus to take his reduction to roughly 20 minutes per game and handle it well. Just as he sold NBA superstars on supporting actor roles in the Olympics, he's selling Paulus and fellow upperclassmen David McClure and Lance Thomas on coming off the pine.
"It's an asset," Krzyzewski said.
An asset few teams have these days. And an asset that will help keep Duke competitive all season long.
There have been hot starts before in recent years -- plenty of them, as the Blue Devils seemingly played over their heads and then wore down or were exposed come tournament time.
Don't expect this Duke team to fade all season -- not even against North Carolina. If the Tar Heels want to know where their challenge is coming from, they don't have to look far to find it.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.