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  • Jeff GoodmanESPN Insider Close
    • Joined ESPN as a college basketball Insider in June 2013
    • Previously wrote for CBSSports.com and FOXSports.com

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — Just a few days ago, no one knew quite what to expect from this Duke team. There was a time when the Blue Devils were favored to cut down the nets not only at the ACC tournament but also at the Final Four.

Such lofty expectations seemed in doubt at various points during what has been a tumultuous season, but after consecutive wins at the ACC tourney over potential Final Four teams, the Blue Devils have their swagger back.

They actually believe in themselves — and it's not just lip service.

It was there going into the season. They were hyped as the de facto national championship front-runners, with the return of Grayson Allen and the arrival of a talented freshman class that included arguably the top two players in the country: Harry Giles and Jayson Tatum.

"We have a chance to be special," Allen told ESPN back in October.

But for numerous reasons, this team has yet to live up to its potential. Giles had another knee surgery prior to the season and hasn't looked like, well, the old Harry Giles, until a stretch in the second half of an ACC semifinal win over North Carolina on Friday. Allen has battled mental and physical issues, fifth-year senior Amile Jefferson has also dealt with injuries, and coach Mike Krzyzewski took a leave of absence due to back surgery.

Duke lost three games during a four-game stretch in January, culminating in an embarrassing home setback to NC State. However, that seems like a distant memory, replaced by what has transpired over the last three days at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn — a trio of come-from-behind wins over Clemson, Louisville and the rival Tar Heels.

These are 18-, 19- and 20-year-old kids. It's all about the here and now. Forgotten will be the chemistry issues and the team meeting at Coach K's house in late January, in which the Blue Devils were banned from wearing team gear.

"It's like night and day from that stretch when we were 1-3," Tatum said after the 93-83 win over North Carolina. "Now we're rolling, peaking at the right time. We have an opportunity to play for an ACC title. We've done a complete 360."

Duke entered the ACC tourney as the No. 5 seed and didn't earn a double bye, which meant the Blue Devils had to open the event at the Barclays Center in the noon game on Wednesday against Clemson. The Blue Devils were abysmal in the first 20 minutes but managed to advance despite a scoreless performance from Allen.

Allen has heated up the past two games, Luke Kennard and Tatum have been as advertised, and the Blue Devils are getting production in the post from Jefferson and Giles. This team finally looks the part of a unit instead of a bunch of talented individuals thrown together.

"We're getting it back. We've got so much confidence now, and see how good we are and how good we can be," Giles said.

"I think we're confident in our ability to fight," Jefferson added. "We've been down in all three games in the second half. That shows we have a confidence, an air of togetherness as a group."

If the Blue Devils can win the tourney by knocking off Notre Dame on Saturday (ESPN & ESPN App, 9 p.m. ET), they will enter the NCAA tournament with a psyche as confident as it's been all season. Sure, Duke had success in the nonconference slate, but Allen wasn't himself, Giles was still on the mend, and Tatum missed the first eight games.

But now Duke is where it was supposed to be all along — physically and mentally. The Blue Devils are in the ACC title game, with an opportunity to run off four wins in four days heading into the NCAA tournament.

Now who wants to see this team in the same region when the brackets are unveiled Selection Sunday?

No one.

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