DURHAM, N.C. (AP) - Duke is back in the top 10.
All but written off as title contenders after an early January slump, the eighth-ranked Blue Devils (19-5, 8-3 Atlantic Coast Conference) enter their heated rivalry Wednesday night with North Carolina on quite a roll.
Their only loss in the past month came in overtime at No. 1 Syracuse. They're in the top 10 for the first time since December and are finally playing like the team anointed as the preseason favorite in the new-look ACC.
'I think our team is the best it's been right now,' coach Mike Krzyzewski said Monday. 'And I think we're very good. But ... we can lose really easier than last year's team.'
They proved that a few times earlier this season - and that led to questions about whether this Duke team was overrated.
But since hitting rock bottom in a 72-59 loss at Clemson on Jan. 11, the Blue Devils have shown a renewed commitment to defense and it's paid off at the other end of the court.
'We realize that playing defense and locking in on the defensive end is the way we're going to win,' senior captain Tyler Thornton said. 'Early in the season, we relied a lot on our offense and trying to outscore people, but we weren't playing defense and using our athleticism and our speed and our quickness to our best abilities.'
In each of their seven wins since then, they haven't allowed more than 68 points. Each of the five teams that beat Duke so far scored at least 72.
And they've forced at least 10 steals three times in the last month after doing it only twice in their first 16 games.
'I definitely think we've been playing with an edge, just because we've taken some tough losses,' forward Amile Jefferson said. 'We think about our past games, our past losses, it puts a fire in us. ... Right now, we're just playing with a fire and a fight.'
Marcus Paige will try to challenge that defense for North Carolina (16-7, 6-4), which has won a season-high five straight games. Paige has thrived as the top scorer at 17.0 points per game, and much of that production comes after halftime.
In the first 20 minutes of games, he is averaging 6.4 points on 36.6 percent shooting, including 31 percent from 3-point range. Those numbers jump after halftime to 10.6 points on 47.8 percent shooting and 41 percent from behind the arc, according to STATS LLC.
That includes UNC's only overtime game, a 97-85 win against Davidson on Dec. 21 in which Paige scored 11 of his 17 points in OT.
"I have been a little bit more aggressive (after halftime)," Paige said. "But it's not like I'm not trying to produce or be aggressive in the first half. ... When you look at the numbers, it is kind of crazy."
Some of his best performances have come in UNC's biggest games this year.
Paige scored a career-high 32 points against Louisville in November. Ten days later, he scored 11 of his 13 in the second half of a win at then-No. 1 Michigan State. In December, he scored 21 of his 23 in the second half in a win against Kentucky.
Last week, he scored 18 of his 25 in the second half against Maryland.
He's also making an ACC-best 90.5 percent of his free throws as the only reliable option for a team struggling mightily at the line.
"He's a whole different animal," Duke point guard Quinn Cook said. "He's way more aggressive and I think he has that confidence where he's played in big games - Louisville, Michigan State, Kentucky - and he's performed well. ... He's taken his game to a whole new level."
Krzyzewski added the Blue Devils 'have had a lot of growing up to do because our two most talented players had never been through this before,' referring to Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood and freshman Jabari Parker.
Parker has come on strong lately, scoring at least 20 points in three of his last four games, and is averaging a team-best 19.2 points.
That's a significant step forward for the phenom, who found himself benched for the final 4 1/2 minutes of a loss at Notre Dame on Jan. 4. A week later, Duke shot 25 percent in the second half against Clemson and was outrebounded 48-30. After that game, the Blue Devils sank to No. 23 in the AP Top 25 - their lowest ranking since they dropped entirely out of the poll in February 2007.
'We were down at the bottom, about to be kicked out of the Top 25, and our noses were rubbed in the dirt a little bit,' Hood said.
After the Blue Devils sweated out a 69-65 home victory over Virginia, Krzyzewski vowed to 'do a better job' and said 'we're all in today.'
They've been tough to beat ever since.
Their six wins since then have come by an average of 22 points, and the one loss in that stretch - a 91-89 defeat in overtime against Syracuse before more than 35,000 people in the Carrier Dome - came in one of the most memorable games of the year.
They may have turned their season back around, but they insist they haven't proven anything yet and vow to attack the rest of the schedule with the same mentality they've taken during the past month.
'We're still not out of it,' Hood said. 'We've still got the same mindset.'
The Associated Press News Service
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