DURHAM, N.C. — The one constant of No. 5 Duke’s title reign has been Kyle Singler.
For a change, he doesn’t lead the Blue Devils in many stat categories. But Singler quietly has put up some better numbers than he did last year when he was voted the most outstanding player at the Final Four and keyed the run to Duke’s fourth national championship.
So far this season, one key starter is out — possibly for the season. Another picked up much of the burden of both scoring and leadership. Several others slid in and out of the starting lineup as coach Mike Krzyzewski looked for the most effective mix.
Through it all, the most consistent performer has been Singler.
“He’s just been there forever, and he’s such a steady producer,” North Carolina’s John Henson said Tuesday. “He’s not really going to do anything to wow you, but he’s going to do his job and do what his team needs to win. He’s somebody we can’t overlook and I think he’s one of the most dynamic players on the team, so he’s somebody we’ll have to key in on.”
Singler, an all-Atlantic Coast Conference forward, is trying to keep the Blue Devils (21-2, 8-1) among the contenders for another title, and a familiar challenge looms: the first of two annually scheduled matchups with the 20th-ranked Tar Heels (17-5, 7-1) on Wednesday night, with the top spot in the standings on the line in the latest renewal of college basketball’s fiercest rivalry.
“Out of anything that’s going on this week, that’s the thing that we’re playing for,” Singler said. “It’s for first place in the league.”
Win or lose, Singler has shown a knack for putting up big numbers at the Tar Heels’ expense. He averaged 18.8 points in six matchups — 19 in three wins, 18 in three losses — and has scored 20 points three times against them, including a 25-point performance in a 32-point rout in last year’s regular-season finale in Durham.
Then again, no matter who the opponent is, Duke always seem to know what it’s going to get from Singler. The heady senior can be counted upon to deliver double-digit points, a few 3-pointers from the deep wings or corners and a handful of rebounds.
“We’ve all accepted a role or roles throughout the year, and that’s important, because every role needs to be filled,” Singler said. “And I think the guys are understanding what they need to do out there on the court. If we can do that at the highest level, we’ll be at the highest level.”
Getting to that level has been more of a challenge for Duke during the 15 games it has played without star point guard Kyrie Irving, who’s out indefinitely with a toe injury. In his absence, Nolan Smith took on the added responsibility of running the team and is averaging ACC bests of 21 points and 5.6 assists.
Guards Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry are hitting higher percentages of 3s. Big man Mason Plumlee is tops in rebounding.
But perhaps slightly lost in the shuffle, Singler — the other half of the ACC’s most productive tandem — ranks third in the league in scoring with an average of 18 points, slightly better than the 17.7 points he scored last year. Earlier this season, the less-experienced players in Duke’s lineup seemed more comfortable deferring to the two senior starters.
“We want everybody to feel part of this team. Early on, myself and Kyle really felt like guys were just kind of closed in, relying on Kyle and myself to do a lot of the scoring,” Smith said. “That’s not how we want to win games. We have a lot of talent on this team.”
Singler has an ACC-best 21 straight games in double figures and has done it 24 times in 25 games dating to last year’s South Regional final against Baylor. That includes a career-high-tying 30 points in his home state of Oregon.
Three times this season, he has matched a career high with 10 field goals to little fanfare. His personal-best 10-of-13 shooting performance came two months ago in a rout of North Carolina-Greensboro — a game better known as Krzyzewski’s 880th career victory, and the one that moved him ahead of longtime rival Dean Smith on the all-time wins list.
But there’s little chance anything will be overlooked in this game. Not with the spotlight shining on what’s annually the most glamorous regular-season game of the college season.
“Those are two seniors. Those are two guys that aren’t going to come along like that and play four years in college basketball very often on the same team like that,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said of Singler and Smith. “I’m not going to enjoy them tomorrow, and I’m not going to enjoy them any other time that we play them, but if you’re a fan of ACC basketball, you ought to enjoy those youngsters while we’ve got them.”