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Coming to the defense of defense

The Blue Devil defense has stepped up its intensity and efficiency in Duke’s past two victories at Louisville and against Pittsburgh.
The Blue Devil defense has stepped up its intensity and efficiency in Duke’s past two victories at Louisville and against Pittsburgh.

It’s no secret that during Duke’s two-game losing streak last week, the Blue Devils could not play a lick of defense.

Against N.C. State, Duke allowed the Wolfpack to shoot 55 percent from the floor and 62.5 percent from beyond the arc. Against Miami, it was more of the same—the Hurricanes shot 51.8 percent from floor, an even 50 percent from long range and hung 56 points on the Blue Devils in the second half. Duke allowed 177 points in the two games after its previous season-high in points allowed had been just 73.

Mike Krzyzewski has always been a proponent of man-to-man defense, but when he saw his players getting beat up and down the floor and in the half-court the way they were against Miami and N.C. State, he did what good coaches do and shook it up a bit. He knew that his team’s shooting confidence was at a season low and so he changed what he could control—the style of defense his team played.

When the Blue Devils headed to Louisville, Ky., last Saturday in what would be win No. 998 for Krzyzewski, they played a healthy dose of zone defense, very similar to the one that his peer and good friend Jim Boeheim has made famous at Syracuse.

The result was an absolute 180 on the defensive side of the ball.

Duke held the Cardinals to just 29.5 percent from the floor and an even worse 16 percent from behind the 3-point line. Louisville had just two players reach double digits—guard Terry Rozier, who had 17 points, and forward Montrezl Harrell, who had 10—and no other Cardinal had more than seven points in the contest. The Blue Devils still couldn’t find their stroke, but it didn’t matter. When you play defense at that high of a level, you can afford to be average from the floor and dismal beyond the arc.

And then came the shooting barrage.

Against Pittsburgh Monday, Duke shot a remarkable 47.8 percent from beyond the arc, its highest 3-point percentage so far this season in an ACC contest. The Blue Devils continued to play the 2-3 zone that stifled Louisville just two days before and mixed some man-to-man defense back in as well. But more importantly, Duke looked confident shooting the ball for the first since the start of the New Year.

When a team has trouble shooting the ball the way the Blue Devils did, it needs to find a way to get its mojo back and all the shooting drills in the world won’t save a player if he doesn’t feel confident in his shot. That’s where the importance of a strong defense comes into play.

Duke is going to have days like it had against Miami and N.C. State where it simply cannot find a way to put the ball in the basket with efficiency and regularity; that’s just part of the game. But what this team has the ability to do that last year’s team could not is fall back on its defense. That gives them a spark by frustrating the opponent and not letting them have their way in the paint or on the perimeter.

When the Blue Devils are confident, they can defend and keep themselves in the game regardless of how they shoot, it takes an enormous weight off the shoulders of the guards and Jahlil Okafor, who has probably felt at times that if he didn’t put it in the basketball, there would be no offense that day. But Duke showed against the Panthers that it can still shoot and all took was a little spark to get them right.

This team is starting to get its swagger and confidence back after it took a punch to the mouth last week and it is due in large part to a new style of defense. Whether Krzyzewski decides to continue with the zone this year or goes back to his comfort zone with the man-to-man remains to be seen. Regardless, it is the defense that will have to spark the offense the next time the Blue Devils get caught in a shooting drought.

And considering the three-game road trip it is about to undertake against a good St. John’s team and the No. 2 and No. 8 teams in the country, Duke’s defense is likely going to have to shine again soon.

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