LOUISVILLE, Ky.—In its previous 80 minutes of basketball before Saturday’s game against Louisville, Duke gave up 177 points, 20 3-pointers, 106 second-half points and 76 points in the paint. Its adjusted defense metric measured by basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy plummeted from No. 11 in the country to No. 67.
The Blue Devils looked like they had no way of protecting center Jahlil Okafor in high pick-and-roll situations and many were questioning how Duke could keep Cardinal guards Chris Jones and Terry Rozier and forward Montrezl Harrell from dominating the paint Saturday just like Miami and N.C. State did earlier in the week.
Even though Louisville entered the game shooting just 30 percent from 3-point range—the 285th-ranked clip in the nation through Jan. 14—the Cardinals’ dangerous personnel seemed on paper like it too could have its way against the Blue Devils’ man-to-man defense.
Two years ago, in the Elite Eight, Louisville broke the game open against a different Duke team by using high, flat ball screens to free up its guards, so analysts across the country were predicting a similar big game for this Cardinal offense.
But through the numerous different breakdowns of why the Blue Devils would continue to struggle defending the ball screen, everyone forgot about a very important factor—Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski.
The all-time winningest head coach in men's college basketball history has traditionally stuck with a pressure man-to-man defense, but rebuffed the myth that he refuses to switch approaches by going back to the drawing board after his team’s worst performances of the season.
“Before you’re ever critical with your team, you say ‘Am I putting my players in the best position to be successful offensively and defensively?’” Krzyzewski said. “Because I’m not a systems-oriented guy, I’m constantly working on that.”
Krzyzewski and his staff decided to rotate out the defense it had been using in the team’s first 16 games, instead opting to only pick up players once they approached the 3-point line and sagging off shooters to protect the paint. They had introduced zone concepts as early as the preseason, but announced Wednesday in practice that they would be implemented heavily Saturday given the Cardinals’ shooting woes and the Blue Devils’ personnel. But far more went into the decision than simply X’s and O’s.
Duke’s inexperienced squad had recently shown frustration, impatience and stagnation since winning at then-No. 2 Wisconsin Dec. 3, so Krzyzewski also wanted to infuse a change of pace to give the Blue Devils their edge back and make the game fun again. Several of Duke’s players have been going through shooting struggles of their own—most notably freshmen starters Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow—so the Blue Devils also knew a win against the No. 6 team in the nation was likely not going to come without some sort of boost.
“We needed to change our point of pickup, whether it be man or zone, and put it at the top of the key [to] try not to let people get points in the paint against us,” Krzyzewski said, “Our offense has negatively affected our defense. Giving them something a little new where they had each other’s back helped them even though we’re still not there offensively.”
The decision paid off in a big way Saturday.
As was the case when Louisville fell to No. 1 Kentucky 58-50 Dec. 27, the Cardinals’ inability to make wide-open shots became the story of the game. Louisville shot 29.5 percent for the game, went just 4-of-25 from 3-point range and could not score inside on the rare occasions it was able to get the ball in the middle of the zone. The Cardinals finished with just 24 points in the paint.
The Blue Devils benefited from several bad bounces for Louisville and foul trouble for Chris Jones—who knocked in a 3-pointer and transition jumper early. But their new scheme had a bigger impact than anticipated because it got them to do something they hadn’t in a long time—play together for 40 minutes.
“We were comfortable just because we were talking and communicating at a high level,” Tyus Jones said. “When we’re communicating and talking and have each other’s back, we play a lot better. No matter if it’s zone or man, we’ve got to communicate.”
Once Duke got back in the habit of helping each other on the defensive end, the offensive dominoes fell slowly, but surely. Sophomore Matt Jones nailed two enormous corner 3-pointers to get the Blue Devils in a rhythm and tie the game at 12-12 with 8:29 left before halftime, and his teammates followed suit.
Tyus Jones began attacking after breaking the Cardinal press and had by far his best game of 2015, scoring 10 points and dishing out eight assists against just two turnovers. Frontcourt players Amile Jefferson and Jahlil Okafor capitalized on a freer paint due to the Louisville pressure, combining for 37 points and 14 rebounds and missing just three field goals combined.
And although the rest of Duke’s team—excluding Jefferson, Okafor and Tyus and Matt Jones—shot just 3-of-17, the secret ingredient to the Blue Devils cracking the fourth-most efficient defense in the nation was teamwork. More telling than who was scoring for Duke were the reactions from the entire team when the buckets went through the net.
“[The difference] was our effort, our intensity, our enthusiasm,” senior guard Quinn Cook said. “Whatever defense, whatever offense, it was our effort and enthusiasm.”
That energy was missing earlier in the week against Miami, but now that the Blue Devils have secured another marquee road win, they'll look to carry it into Monday's game against Pittsburgh.
Through the adversity of the previous six days, Krzyzewski emphasized one thing despite his team’s poor play—his continued confidence in his players.
“I think Coach just felt comfortable against this team playing [zone] and they probably didn’t scout for it,” Cook said. “Coach is a genius. He’s the best ever. Whatever he wants, that’s what we do. [But] I haven’t seen [him] this intense. Even before we lost against N.C. State, after Wake Forest, the next practice was rough. [Still through it all] he kept confidence in us. [And he] kept telling us he believes in us.”
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