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Duke men's basketball set for matchup of zone defenses vs. Syracuse

Duke has held three straight ACC opponents to fewer than 60 points in its zone defense.
Duke has held three straight ACC opponents to fewer than 60 points in its zone defense.

A lot of what Mike Krzyzewski knows about the 2-3 zone, he learned from Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim when the two shared the Team USA sidelines—Krzyzewski as the head coach, Boeheim as his top assistant.

This season, Krzyzewski has committed to the zone and refined it to make it as effective as it has ever been at Duke. Saturday night, he will unleash it on his good friend and former colleague in a game that may not feature a single possession of man-to-man defense. 

The fifth-ranked Blue Devils will host Syracuse at 6:15 at Cameron Indoor Stadium, looking to push their winning streak to five in a row as they begin the home stretch of the regular season.

"Jim and I and our families are as close as you could be," Krzyzewski said on the ACC media teleconference Monday. "He’s as good as anybody who’s coached the game. I may not be smart in some things, but I was smart enough to ask him to be with me for 12 years, and that benefitted me and USA Basketball tremendously."

Duke announced Saturday morning that freshman big man Marvin Bagley III will return to the floor after a knee sprain kept him out for four games, but the team did just fine without him. The Blue Devils (23-5, 11-4 in the ACC) put together two of their most complete performances of the season in home blowouts of Louisville and Virginia Tech and also dispatched Georgia Tech and then-No. 11 Clemson on the road.

But the focus for much of Friday was on the status of Duke's other regular starting big man, after Wendell Carter Jr. was named in a early morning Yahoo! Sports report in relation to the FBI's ongoing probe into college basketball. The report revealed that Carter's mother had a meal with disgraced business associate Christian Dawkins, though Duke Vice President and Director of Athletics issued a statement later in the day that Carter's eligibility was not in doubt after a brief internal investigation.

Carter will be matched up against a physical frontcourt featuring 7-foot-2 Pascal Chukwu and breakout freshman Oshae Brissett. Brissett averages close to a double-double to complement sophomore Tyus Battle—the ACC's third-leading scorer—and Frank Howard in the backcourt.

Battle, Howard and Brissett have not been efficient with their scoring, though, all shooting 42.0 percent or worse from the field this season, and the Orange (18-10, 7-8) have no serious scoring threats behind them. The result has been a team outside the top 100 in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted offensive efficiency metric and is fighting to stay on the NCAA tournament bubble.

If Syracuse has trouble scoring in general, it could have a hard time against the Blue Devils' new-look defense that has held three straight ACC opponents to fewer than 60 points for the first time in 37 years. 

But the Orange could return the favor with a zone defense of their own that can be suffocating and keep the ball away from the Blue Devil frontcourt. Guards Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr. will be counted on to stay hot from 3-point range, and if they knock down a few triples over the top of the zone to create some separation, Syracuse is unlikely to have the consistent firepower to shoot its way back into the game.

"He’s been phenomenal. He’s been shooting the ball really well, he’s been leading us really well, gathering us in huddles and just keeping our heads on our shoulders," point guard Trevon Duval said of Allen after Wednesday's 82-56 win against the Cardinals. "He’s been doing a really good job."

Duke would go a long way toward locking up a double bye in the ACC tournament for the first time since 2015 with a win and may even have a spot in the top four wrapped up by the final buzzer Saturday, depending on how Clemson and Virginia Tech fare earlier in the day.

"Something the coaches told us is to look at every one of these games for the rest of conference as sort of a tournament game.... Kind of take a one-and-done mindset because that’s how it is in the tournament," sophomore forward Javin DeLaurier said. "Obviously last year, we lost early, and for the guys that are returning, we know how much that hurts, so for these young guys, we’ve really stressed when you go out there, you’ve got to give your all."


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