Advanced metrics indicate that Duke may not be strong enough defensively to compete for a national championship.
Eric Lin / Chronicle File Photo
Advanced metrics indicate that Duke may not be strong enough defensively to compete for a national championship.

According to recent NCAA champion precedent, a title run isn’t in the cards for Duke: Its defense isn’t good enough.

No national champion has finished worse than 21st in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency since 2003, when KenPom.com, a haven for advanced college basketball statistics, first began publishing the metric. The statistic measures the points allowed per 100 possessions a team would give up against the average Division I offense.

Duke’s rank: 101st.

The Blue Devils have gotten by this season with an offense that ranks second nationally in adjusted offense efficiency. Does that mean they can defy this precedent? No. Can the defense play well enough to make their season-long defensive inconsistency a distant memory? Yes, and they have.

“That’s going to be the key to our run: Defense and toughness. We can’t rely on our offense to win. There are going to be games where you’re not shooting well, not getting the bounce that you need,” senior captain Tyler Thornton said. “The best defensive teams always make it to the Final Four and eventually win the championship.”

"We were playing with our backs against the wall." —Tyler Thornton
Thus far, Duke hasn’t been one of the best defensive teams in the country. At times, though, the defense has been elite. On paper, the Blue Devils have the type of athleticism that should stifle opposing offenses. Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood and Amile Jefferson are all long, physical and quick. Marshall Plumlee, Duke’s lone 7-footer, has found his niche as a rebounder and discouraging target beneath the hoop. Thornton has now held the role of ball-stopper for three seasons.

Thornton was the key in one of Duke’s best defensive performances of the season, a 79-69 victory against Michigan at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Wolverines, the No. 2 seed in Duke’s Midwest Region and the No. 3 offense in the nation per KenPom.com, were held to 22 points in the first half on 8-of-26 shooting. Thornton, alongside Quinn Cook and Matt Jones, held guard Nik Stauskas—Michigan’s leading scorer at 17.5 points per game—without a field goal for the entire contest.

And that wasn’t an isolated incident. The Blue Devils played stingy defense against Pittsburgh’s elite offense in a hostile road environment during Duke’s five-game winning streak that followed disappointing losses to Notre Dame and Clemson. Duke gave up 58.4 points per game in that span, arguably its best defensive stretch of the season.

“We were playing with our backs against the wall, which they were,” Thornton said.

That’s the sort of mentality the team has to play with in the NCAA tournament because fixing a defense isn’t always so easy. After all, what exactly has been the problem that needs fixing?

Hood said that, at times this season, the Blue Devils would allow missing shots on the offensive end to affect their defensive performance. Throughout the year, he has observed, they have “made that adjustment."

Associate head coach Jeff Capel said that protecting the basket and limiting teams to only one shot are vital. Duke is giving up 9.2 offensive rebounds per game, which ranks in the bottom half of the nation.

Capel noted that the key isn’t any one person. Although you can have very good individual defenders, he said, it’s about playing as a unit: keeping players in front of you, communicating and helping out.

Although the Blue Devils’ defensive reputation is less than stellar, they have played excellent defense during stretches of the season.
Jennie Xu / Chronicle File Photo
“We’ve been very good at times defensively,” he said. “Other times we’ve been not as good. This is the time of year we can’t afford that.”

One of the most grueling aspects of the NCAA tournament is scouting, especially for the second game of a weekend when there is only one day in between games. But Thornton said that knowing an opponent is critical for success on the defensive end. Just as teams have widely varying offensive styles, Duke’s defense needs to be prepared to play differently.

The Blue Devils have shown a willingness to do just that this year. Sometimes they apply full-court pressure to an opposing offense after a made shot. Other times the swarm comes just outside the 3-point line. Capel added that self-scouting is just as important—not just knowing the tendencies of the Blue Devils' opponents but their own, so that they can make fixes from game to game.

On a team that stands among the most talented in the country—having proven it consistently on the offensive end all year—making those fixes will decide how long Duke will dance. The shots won’t always fall and struggles on the offensive end are inevitable, so the Blue Devils have to make sure their opponents struggle even more.

“There are going to be times where we go on droughts offensively,” Hood said. “We need to make plays on the defensive end.”