CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. - Wednesday night's game began with a flood of orange jerseys soaring to the basket. Duke responded with a smothering orange cloud of its own.
After 13 minutes of back-and-forth basketball, the Blue Devils' 2-3 zone, nicknamed "orange" after Syracuse's famed defensive style, stemmed the onslaught of Cavalier buckets for the remainder of the first half, allowing Duke to go on a 15-0 run and wrest control of the game.
"The score opened up when we went zone," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
To start the game, Virginia guard Sean Singletary repeatedly beat Blue Devils off the dribble, either to set up his own shot or kick out to teammates for open threes. In the first six minutes of the half, he had nine points. He added three assists during the first 13 minutes, including setting up a Mamadi Diane 3-pointer to give the Cavaliers the lead.
By switching to the zone, however, Duke was able to clog the middle and prevent dribble penetration. Virginia, especially Singletary, was forced to pass the ball around the perimeter and hoist contested 3-pointers. During the final seven minutes of the half, the Cavaliers turned the ball over five times and shot an atrocious 0-for-8 from the field.
"Our problem offensively was that we weren't getting the ball to the middle of the defense," Virginia head coach Dave Leitao said. "Part of the reason they went to the zone was to stop Sean from getting to the teeth of the defense."
Singletary, who finished with 18 points but shot just 6-of-16 from the field, agreed.
"They went to zone, and we couldn't run and then they had two or three people on me," he said. "They forced everybody else to try and beat them."
In the last several games in which Duke has struggled defensively, big men haven't torn up the Blue Devil post defense. Rather, guards have beaten Duke's perimeter defenders off the dribble, causing the defense to collapse. The driver has then been able to distribute, finding big men open under the basket for layups or shooters waiting in the corner for threes.
This rang true against Wake Forest, when Ishmael Smith beat Duke off the dribble and found James Johnson underneath. It was true when Miami's perimeter players consistently fed Dwayne Collins in the paint when his defender would help on penetration; Collins finished with 26 points on 12-of-14 shooting.
In the second half, Duke went away from "orange" after the first few possessions and the defensive problems present in its two conference losses re-emerged. Laurynas Mikalauskas and Diane had two straight lay-ins off penetration by guard Calvin Baker to cut what had been a 19-point Duke lead back down to just nine.
The zone worked well for a critical stretch Wednesday, but the players still know it is not their primary defensive strength. For the remainder of the season, they will be forced to shore up their defense and prevent dribble penetration.
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"We don't practice [zone] much at all," senior DeMarcus Nelson said. "We're a man team. We play man, we pressure the ball, we contest."
The major question for Duke in the zone is whether the team can block out enough to prevent second-chance points. Thus far this season, the Blue Devils have struggled keeping opponents off the glass. Wednesday, however, Duke outrebounded the Cavaliers and held them to just 10 second-chance points. During the long drought, Virginia was able to recover just two of its eight missed attempts-one of which led to a foul and two made free throws by Diane.
Given how effective it was for such a long stretch tonight, Krzyzewski said it was likely that the zone would return at points during the rest of the season. Even if it just forces opponents to prepare for it, it can be a useful defensive tactic.
After the game, sophomore Jon Scheyer said that the team switched to stop Singletary, but also to simply stun the Cavaliers with a new look. Virginia appeared unprepared to attack the zone, not only because Leitao's squad didn't expect it, but because few teams practice offenses to counter zones.
"The coaches felt that we could go in there and kind of surprise them a little bit with the zone, and it was effective," freshman Kyle Singler said.
Tyler Hansbrough and the Tar Heels are strong on the offensive glass and also feature sharpshooters like Wayne Ellington on the perimeter. So will orange come in handy against a lighter shade of blue?
"I have no idea," sophomore Jon Scheyer said with a smile. "Ask Coach that one."