To get back to the Final Four for the first time in four seasons, Duke will have to go through Phoenix.
In many ways, it's what the Blue Devils have been doing all season.
One year after averaging an ACC-low 70.4 points per game, Duke is third in the nation in scoring at 84.1 points per contest. Aside from a deeper bench, the largest change in the team's offense has come from head coach Mike Krzyzewski's work on the national team with Phoenix Suns' head coach Mike D'Antoni.
D'Antoni, one of Krzyzewski's assistants on Team USA, has employed a fast-paced, perimeter-based offense during his four full seasons with the Suns. The result has been three 50-win campaigns-with a fourth just a few wins away-and two trips to the Western Conference Finals.
Over the summer, D'Antoni and Krzyzewski started discussing how to properly space the floor for the national team's athletes. The byproduct of that conversation has been a more uptempo style in Cameron Indoor Stadium that utilizes the Blue Devils' perimeter strengths while masking their interior deficiencies.
"That's what we talked about-concepts in the summertime, seeing how we could open up the court for all the athletes [with the] good players Team USA has and Duke not having overwhelming size, and really taking advantage of perimeter skills," D'Antoni said. "We had similar ideas anyway. I watched Duke play for years, and [Krzyzewski] does a lot of stuff we did. So we really just shared ideas and maybe he tweaked some things.
"What Duke has done this year, it's just phenomenal. Their offense has been great."
The key to the offense has been spacing. The Blue Devils have been able to spread the floor to exploit their perimeter skills. Wings DeMarcus Nelson and Gerald Henderson can drive the lane while guards Greg Paulus and Jon Scheyer, along with forward Kyle Singler, can all stroke the three.
In total, Duke has five players who have hit more than 40 3-pointers-led by Paulus' 78-and the team shot 38.4 percent from beyond the arc.
"We have a lot more threats on the court at a time," Scheyer said. "Pretty much, four or five guys can always shoot the ball when we're on the court. It makes teams not be able to focus on one guy. For us, any night one guy can step up."
This balance has shown up on the stat sheet, as five Blue Devils average in double figures, and seven different players have led Duke in single-game scoring this season.
One of the differences between this team and that of a year ago has been the Blue Devils' use of the corner. On fast breaks, the wings can flare to the corners of the court, looking to shoot an open three or just to create more lanes for penetration. Singler and Scheyer, in particular, have excelled with corner jump shots.
"We changed our system with our floor spacing, the style with penetration and kick, the ballscreens at different spots and angles on the court that we use," Nelson said. "It's been good for us with our strengths with our drivers and shooters."
Added depth on the bench and a healthy Paulus have allowed Duke to push the pace, something the Blue Devils couldn't do a season ago. Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Dave McClure have provided quality minutes throughout the season and have eased the burden on the starting unit, as only Nelson averages more than 30 minutes per game.
The quicker pace isn't without its flaws, however. Duke has run into trouble this season when it has turned the ball over. In the Blue Devils' five losses, they have averaged 19.4 turnovers per game. In their 27 wins, that number is just 12.5.
D'Antoni, who benefits from having two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash running his offense, stressed the need for quality point guard play and taking care of the basketball within his scheme.
"In any system that you have, [point guard play] is major," D'Antoni said. "You can't get around it.... When you're running fast and you're based on taking quick shots, then it's even more important to have a good point guard because it's in his hands a lot, and he has to make good decisions on the floor."
The best decision, though, seems to be Krzyzewski's willingness to give free rein to his offense. The fast-paced, wide-open style has resulted in Duke's highest scoring average since 2001-2002 and helped the Blue Devils bounce back from their worst season in a decade. It's also allowed the players to have more fun on the court.
"All the guys have been really excited ever since we put it in," Paulus said. "It's been fun to come to practice and learn and find different ways to get better.... It's been great to play with and great to just find a way to get up and down and create shots that way."
But if Duke wants to cut down the nets at the Final Four, they'll have to do one thing D'Antoni and the Suns haven't been able to do: win in San Antonio.
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