Guard play sparks Duke basketball's offensive explosion amid foul trouble
The No. 4 Blue Devils shot 70.4 percent from the floor en route to a 111-77 win against Davidson—the team's best single-game shooting performance since 1985. Four players eclipsed the 20-point plateau for the first time in program history. The team committed just four turnovers all night, and starting point guard Quinn Cook registered an 8:0 assist-to-turnover ratio. The Blue Devils (1-0) connected on 13 3-pointers, shooting at a 61.9 percent clip.
But nearly is the operative word.
Some of the preseason concerns with Duke's personnel manifested themselves early against the Wildcats (0-1)—namely foul trouble. Starting big Amile Jefferson was the first culprit, picking up two fouls in four minutes, which relegated him to the bench for the final 16 minutes of the first half.
“A little bit too much intensity," Jefferson said when asked about what contributed to his early fouls. "Wanting to get the ball at all costs, not wanting your man to score on you. It’s a learning step for me, and it’s something that I have to avoid.”Jefferson wasn't the only man in foul woes. The first big man off the bench, senior Josh Hairston, had his own trouble, collecting three fouls in a one-minute span early in the second half. Freshman forward Jabari Parker picked up his third foul just 2:15 after halftime.
Born out of the foul trouble of Duke's big men was a rebounding deficiency and trouble defending the interior. Jefferson and Hairston combined to play 21 minutes, but neither recorded a single rebound. Despite starting the three tallest players on the floor, the Blue Devils were out-rebounded 31-27, which is even more surprising considering Duke missed just 16 field goals.
Defensively, preseason Southern Conference Player of the Year De'Mon Brooks feasted in the paint against the Blue Devils. The forward used his 6-foot-7, 230-pound frame to bully his way to 24 points on 7-of-9 shooting from the floor and 10-for-12 from the charity stripe.
But this apparent shortcoming may be just a tactical ploy by head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“We didn’t want to over-help with [Brooks]," Krzyzewski said. "Because if he did score it was two points—although they add up too—but they don’t add up as much as the threes.”
The rebounding differential and leaky interior defense can be explained by Duke's use of a small-ball lineup. Featuring Parker and redshirt sophomore Rodney Hood as the team's four and five, the Blue Devils were able to allocate more minutes to their talented wings.
"We play so many different lineups at so many different times," Jefferson said. "Guys are ready to play any position Coach puts them in. The versatility on this team is unbelievable."
But small-ball isn't just a lineup that will be employed against smaller teams like Davidson. It's a lineup that Krzyzewski is comfortable going to against any team.
“That’s a lineup you’ll be able to see against a bigger Kansas team," Parker said. "I think we’re, pound for pound, about the same height. They’re not drastically big either, so I think we’ll be able to use that as an advantage. Their forwards, we’ll bring them outside and let our guards come off screens so they can leave the bigs outside of the paint.”
The small-ball lineup is made possible by the exemplary play of Duke's supporting cast, consisting of Cook, Tyler Thornton, Matt Jones and Rasheed Sulaimon. Cook scored 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting to go along with his eight assists. Cook also only managed strong defense without committing the hand-check fouls that plagued him in Duke's second exhibition game. Thornton, who earned the start next to Cook in the backcourt, led the team in plus/minus with a +29 finish.
Jones missed both of his 3-point attempts, but played hard-nosed defense, leading Krzyzewski to liken Jones to former Blue Devil defensive aces Tommy Amaker and Bobby Hurley in terms of the freshman's preparedness to play defense at the college level.
After losing the starting battle in training camp to Thornton, Sulaimon finally blossomed into the player Krzyzewski has been waiting to see for the past few months.
“He has had a good week," Krzyzewski said. "I think he’s finally in good shape. He has not had a good fall.... He’s an explosive player, he’s a really good player. We should expect him to play at the level that he played tonight. That was a big pick-me-up for us.”
Duke may not be as big or as physical as some of the other premiere teams in the NCAA this season, but what they do have is the athleticism and talent on the wings to make those big, physical teams pay. When Parker and Hood have the help of the Blue Devils' role players, there will be plenty more results like the 34-point drubbing of Davidson.
"It’s amazing to have the talent and the versatility that this team does," Jefferson said. "It makes it really special and really fun.”