Duke’s backcourt depth was much thinner than that of its frontcourt entering the year, even before three guards were suspended for missing class, so most of its weapons in Saturday’s exhibition were not used to defending on the wing.
The Blue Devils’ answer? Go to a 2-3 zone early and often, maximizing their strengths with three big men usually roaming the floor at once. With an entire trio on the baseline far bigger than any player on Bowie State’s roster, most of the Bulldogs’ attempts to challenge the zone and attack the basket were futile, and Duke finished the afternoon with 10 blocks.
“When you have a lineup in where Javin [DeLaurier] is at the 3 and your back line is 6-foot-10 and above, they can probably touch arms and cover the whole baseline,” senior guard Grayson Allen said. “It’s a really big zone, so we can get really wide with it.”
The Blue Devils’ starting group—with five-star point guard Trevon Duval suspended—was Allen, Gary Trent Jr., DeLaurier, Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III. Their average height is 6-foot-8 with wingspans even longer, and the first man off the bench was 6-foot-11 Marques Bolden, who played 19 minutes.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski said the sheer size and mobility of Duke’s lineups make this zone unlike any he has coached before, including the 2014-15 Blue Devils’ zone which helped them out of a slump in the middle of the season en route to the national championship.
“It’s different because it’s so wide,” Krzyzewski said. “It gives us an opportunity to play three bigs, because Marvin can be at the perimeter, and Wendell’s a really good basketball player. He’s a really good basketball player who happens to be big.”
With Bowie State shut out of the paint, it resorted to firing away from long distance, taking 32 of its 66 field-goal attempts from beyond the arc. The Bulldogs made just seven of them and shot 27.3 percent from the field on the day.
“It’s crazy because of our length and our mobility,” Bolden said. “We don’t have any guys that are so stagnant. We have guys that can move and guard different positions.”
The big men on the baseline were not the only dangerous pieces of the zone—Allen and Trent were also active up top, hounding Bowie State’s guards into frustrating performances. They were active in the passing lanes throughout the game, getting a few deflections when the Bulldogs tried to make post entry passes and combining for three steals.
Although Bowie State only had 12 turnovers, a relatively low number for a team with inferior talent and size, Duke stayed disciplined in its zone and made it difficult for the Bulldogs to start their offense.
“The thing about playing zone D is when you’re coming up in high school, you hear zone, you’re like, ‘Okay, I get to relax a little bit and not move as much,’” Allen said. “But really in the zone, you’ve got to be more active, and that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Krzyzewski suggested he would not use the zone as much in the regular season against teams the Blue Devils are more evenly matched with, and he added that the Blue Devils will likely revert to more man-to-man pressure when Duval, Jordan Goldwire and Alex O’Connell return from their suspensions.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
If Duke plays man with three bigs on the floor, one of those players will still be in an unfamiliar role away from the basket. But it may have the athletes to make that work.
“[Bagley] can be a great, great defender. He’s got to learn to defend multiple positions, so the perimeter is a new frontier,” Krzyzewski said. “He’ll learn that. He’s tough, he’s a special kid and a great player to coach, just like Wendell. They really want to be good, so they come every day wanting to be good.”