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Defense keeps Eagles’ offense grounded

CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. — Head coach Mike Krzyzewski is the first to admit that this year’s Duke roster is not the most talented he has ever had.

“They’re a good group,” he said. “We’re just not some type of juggernaut. I don’t know if there’s one thing we do great.”

Although the Blue Devils have talent in many areas, especially shooting, they lack the ability to dictate play to their opponents. This proved especially frustrating in the first half of Sunday’s 75-50 win over Boston College, when Duke could not pull away despite a 14-minute stretch in which the Eagles failed to make a single field goal. But the Blue Devils kept the pressure on in the second half to pull away for an easy victory.

The win was much different from their last two victories, a symptom of the fact that the team lacks a standout skill. Against Maryland, Duke relied on the inside presence of Mason and Miles Plumlee and then adjusted Thursday to the up-tempo style of N.C. State to pull out a comeback victory.

“We like to be versatile with our winning,” point guard Quinn Cook said.

On offense, that has meant a balanced attack, in which any variety of players have been counted on for contributions on a given night. Six different players have led Duke in scoring this season, and guard Seth Curry said explicitly that part of the offensive strategy is to “ride the hot hand.”

But the major efforts to improve have had to come on the defensive end, where Duke has struggled on occasion this season.

“We’ve been good at times,” Curry said, “and real bad at others.”

The players think the consistency is improving, though, and Krzyzewski was quick to refute any notion that his squad lacks the necessary ability on defense.

“We’re a good defensive team,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re just not a defensive team like we have been when we’ve had all the athletes that we’ve had and we were forcing turnovers.”

Duke’s perimeter defense has been the bright spot, as the Blue Devils have allowed opponents to shoot just 31.3-percent from beyond the arc. Their performance ranked them fourth in the ACC entering play Sunday, and is more than three percentage points better than the national average. They have been especially good of late, holding their opponents to a conference-leading 28.4 percent in ACC play. Boston College shot just 4-for-14 in the first half, though the overall tally looks better after they sank 2-of-4 in the second half as Duke was blowing the game open.

Although the Eagles are hardly an offensive powerhouse, the Blue Devils treated them accordingly, giving up the fewest points they have allowed all season. Combined with a 55-point defensive effort against Maryland last Saturday that tied the previous season low, the recent performances help to justify Ryan Kelly’s claim that the defense is on the upswing.

“Our defense has really improved,” Kelly said, “and we’re making it a lot harder on teams to get the shots they want.”

Duke’s ability to adjust its defensive scheme on the fly after forward Ryan Anderson drained a couple of open 3-pointers early in the game was crucial. Krzyzewski said that he changed his defense’s response to screens, and the Eagle offense went silent for the rest of the first half.

Sometimes the shots have not fallen for this year’s Blue Devils, and on occasion the defense has been less than stellar. But the one thing that coach and players agree on is that the 2011-12 Duke team has a stubborn desire to succeed.

“I do believe my team has a will to win,” Krzyzewski said. “Our kids have earned everything they’ve gotten.”

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