Since Duke shifted to a full-time zone defense nearly two weeks ago, the Blue Devils have been as good as nearly any team at keeping their opponents off the scoreboard.
So against one of the greatest zone coaches in college basketball history, it was only fitting that Duke’s suffocating defensive unit came to play for a fourth straight game.
In a sloppy affair, the No. 5 Blue Devils outworked Syracuse 60-44 behind 19 points and seven rebounds from Marvin Bagley III in the freshman’s return to action after suffering a right knee sprain against North Carolina 16 days ago. With Duke getting a combined 35 points down low between Bagley and Wendell Carter Jr., it didn’t need much from its backcourt tandem of Grayson Allen and Trevon Duval, who both struggled mightily all game.
“Both teams played really tough defense,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “[Our guys] hung tough and we didn’t let what we couldn’t do on the offensive end impact what we could do on the defensive end. I thought we played outstanding defense, and I’m proud of our guys. Open shots were tough to come by and both teams protected their basket really well, so even though you got it close, man, there was just big-time defense.”
After scoring just two points in more than six minutes to open the second half, a leakout jam from Carter seemed to get the Blue Devils’ offensive juices flowing. More scores down low came from Marques Bolden and Bagley, as Duke (24-5, 12-4 in the ACC) traded baskets with the Orange to maintain its double-digit halftime cushion.
“The reason I sat out a lot of the games [was] to make sure that I was ready to come back, and play a lot like that,” Bagley said. “I felt 100 percent, I felt like myself and that was the reason why I took my time, because I didn’t want to come back too early and have to worry about it, have to keep coming out…I wanted to be 100 percent. I’m very glad I took that route.”
Facing the nation’s 10th-ranked defense according to KenPom.com, buckets for the Blue Devils were few and far between Saturday evening, as Duke shot just 41.5 percent from the field and managed only two triples, both in the final 10 minutes to extend a streak of more than 1,000 straight contests with a made 3-pointer.
As Syracuse (18-11, 7-9) stayed below the 30-point threshold until there were less than 10 minutes to play, the Blue Devils kept at it defensively. And just when it looked like the Orange might get close enough to apply some serious pressure, a thunderous two-handed dunk from Bolden pushed the lead back to nine with 9:38 left.
Two possessions later, a 35-foot lob from Allen to Carter gave Duke a double-digit lead and brought the Cameron Crazies to life.
“I’ve gained a lot of confidence as a passer. I think I’ve gotten much better over my career, and it makes it a little easier when the guys on the team that are 6-foot-10, can jump 40 inches, just throw it in the vicinity,” Allen said. “Really, it just takes a lot of confidence to throw it, maybe a lack of smarts in some cases, but I trust him to go get it so I think I can put it close enough to where he can dunk it.”
Once again, the Blue Devil defense was the story of the night, as they held Syracuse to a miserable shooting performance—the Orange finished 31.5 percent from the field. Duke also forced Syracuse into 17 turnovers, including four steals from Carter and another three by Allen.
The Blue Devils now rank 16th in adjusted defense per Ken Pomeroy, easily the highest mark for Duke this season.
“If you take away the first three conference games that we had and kind of an outlier we had was St. John’s, we’ve played really good defense,” Krzyzewski said. “You can look at all the stats, we’re in the top three or four in just about everything in our conference, and nationally, we’ve gone up tremendously because we’ve been working on it.
“When we didn’t play defense, it was during that time that we didn’t practice. We had exams, one game, break and then boom—96 points, 93 points and then the kids are working. They’re working hard, so we just have to keep up with it.”
It certainly wasn’t a pretty first 20 minutes for either team. The Blue Devils and Orange combined to miss all 20 of their shots from beyond the arc, as the teams’ respective 2-3 zones kept the pace slow in the early going.
But despite coming off the bench, the freshman went to work from the get-go. The 6-foot-11 forward missed just one shot before the break, putting down five dunks, and the hosts eased their way to an 18-8 advantage just before the under-eight media timeout.
Still, the Syracuse defense kept Duke without a field goal for more than five minutes, though the visitors couldn’t muster much offense of their own. The Orange got just four points before a Bagley jam put the Blue Devils back up by double figures at 27-16 as the teams went to the locker room.
Duke will now have a quick turnaround before visiting Virginia Tech Monday night and could clinch a double bye in the ACC tournament with a win or an N.C. State loss Sunday.
“We have to be extremely focused to turn around very quick, because that game is going to be completely different than when we played them here,” Allen said. “We’re going to have to show up and be ready to play, so we can’t fall into that trap about being happy about this game and not ready to go there.”
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."