Duke basketball is finding its defensive identityWhat a difference a week makes.
Nine days after allowing 90 points to Vermont at Cameron Indoor Stadium on 64.8 percent shooting, the No. 10 Blue Devils put on an impressive defensive display against the No. 22 Wolverines.
"We played an outstanding defensive game tonight—not a good one," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Outstanding may be an understatement. Big man Mitch McGary was limited to seven points on 2-of-6 shooting for the first 38 minutes of the game before scoring eight points in garbage time. Guard Nik Stauskas entered the day averaging 20.3 points per game, but was held to just four points and two field goal attempts—both of which he missed.
In nine days time, Duke (7-2) was able to completely revamp its defense to keep Michigan (5-3) at bay. Although there were strong individual performances—namely by senior Tyler Thornton and freshman Matt Jones—it was a team effort that propelled the Blue Devils. After a focus on offense through the first few weeks of the season, the team is coming together defensively as it moves closer to ACC play.
"We’re still trying to figure ourselves out, but in the last two weeks I think we’ve taken big steps—especially on the defensive end of being connected and understanding what the coaches want and need from us,” Thornton said.
The defensive cohesion was hard to miss. Thornton and Jones worked in tandem to take Stauskas out of the game. All three Duke big men—Josh Hairston, Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee—provided constant energy and tenacity defensively as well as on the glass against McGary and the Wolverine frontcourt. Point guard Quinn Cook held his counterpart Derrick Walton, Jr. to just one assist and forced three turnovers.
For the first time this season, the game wasn't about an offensive explosion from forwards Jabari Parker or Rodney Hood—who combined for 29 points on 12-of-27 shooting. Parker and Hood were held to fewer than 20 points in the same game for the first time, letting the spotlight shine on the entirety of the Duke team. Without the focus falling on one or two players, the interdependence between Blue Devils paid significant dividends.
"Since the Vermont game [defense] has been our emphasis, and I think since that game we’ve done a great job of communicating and being more together on the defensive end," Thornton said.
Every player who saw action tonight for the Blue Devils contributed, including the guys off the Duke bench. Jones played a career-high 18 minutes despite going 0-for-4 from the floor but was granted a longer leash than he had enjoyed in his previous eight games for his defensive effort. Jefferson played significant minutes for the second straight game and matched a season-high with six rebounds after a three-game stretch logging 12 minutes or fewer. Andre Dawkins redefined instant offense with his pair of threes in his first 54 seconds on the floor in the second half. Even Plumlee got into the act, playing his heaviest minutes since Nov. 18 and matching his career-high with three rebounds.
But one player was conspicuously missing from the team-wide effort: sophomore guard Rasheed Sulaimon. Sitting at the end of the bench next to Alex Murphy and Semi Ojeleye, Sulaimon did not remove his warmups once, watching from the bench the entire game. Krzyzewski made the situation very clear—Sulaimon was simply being outplayed by the guys now ahead of him in the rotation.
"He has to play better than the guys who played tonight," Krzyzewski said. "He contributed great from the bench."
The mantra all season from Krzyzewski and his players alike has been that this team needed to grow together as the season wore on. Parker, Hood and Dawkins all played zero collegiate minutes last season. Tyler Thornton, Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson are all playing radically different roles than they were a season ago. It seems the only constant for this team between the two season is Cook's presence as the point guard spot.
But now, one month into the regular season, the growth is finally starting to show. Duke basketball isn't the Jabari Parker show, it's not the Rodney Hood show and it's not devoid of defense. Duke basketball is evolving into a total-team effort, and the results will improve along with the improved communication.
“We started out this season as a group of individuals who were talented," Hood said. "Now we’re a team, especially on the defensive end. And if we get hot offensively, nobody can get in our way this year. We have to keep that defensive mindset.”