OMAHA, Neb.—After a quiet first half, guard Malik Newman calmly drained a triple the first time he rose up for a shot after halftime.
And moments later, he hit another.
As the game continued, Newman struck fear into the Blue Devils and emerged as the star Kansas needed to reach its first Final Four since 2012. By the end of the night, the guard had reached 32 points for the game—26 of which came in the second half and overtime.
“He made a lot of tough shots, a lot of timely shots for them,” Allen said. “A lot them—obviously the game was close the whole game—but a lot of them it just felt like, right when we felt like we were about to get a run, he hit one.”
For all the positives head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s zone has produced on the defensive end for his young team, Duke was playing with fire. Although other teams had not had the kind of shooting nights needed to expose the Blue Devils, the Jayhawks featured a four-guard approach that was tailor-made to beat a zone defense.
Unlike the teams that have struggled to make Duke pay in the midrange area, Kansas worked through guard Lagerald Vick in the middle. After showing the Blue Devils his ability to hit soft floaters and throw up lobs for vicious slams by center Udoka Azubuike, Vick had Duke off balance.
The Jayhawks capitalized with crisp ball movement that created open shots for the team’s perimeter weapons. Despite going 13-of-36 from deep, Kansas created good looks almost every time it avoided a turnover.
“Coach just told us to keep attacking the zone,” Newman said. “They were gapping us so much that Coach just said if we were able to get paint touches, then the 3-point line would open up. Lagerald did a great job in the middle, being active in the zone, and we got a lot of shots in the corner.”
To make matters worse, Duke’s zone was not at full strength for much of the game. Freshman Wendell Carter Jr.—who had developed into a force in the center of the Blue Devil defense with his ability to contest shots at the rim—found himself saddled with foul trouble. After Carter fouled out of the game in overtime on a 50-50 block-charge call, the Jayhawks scored on their next two possessions and went on a 10-2 run.
“It’s the way the game is,” Krzyzewski said. “Obviously, you have a kid that’s averaged a double-double the whole year and he just wasn’t able to play his game. I’m not blaming the referees or anything. But it’s just disruptive. You’d rather have him in the game for 30-something minutes.”
One of the few regrets Krzyzewski and his coaching staff might have after the tight loss may be not developing a suitable alternative if their zone was compromised.
Duke’s struggles in man-to-man early in ACC play were well-documented, and the team’s late-season surge was almost entirely attributed to the switch on defense. But against the Jayhawks, the zone seemed doomed from the start, and the Blue Devil defense was certainly not the same with Javin DeLaurier or Marques Bolden in the middle.
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To make matters worse, freshman Marvin Bagley III found himself monitoring guards on the perimeter for much of the game. With the big man away from the hoop, the lane was open for Kansas’ athletic players to crash the boards for second-chance opportunities. Perhaps the most surprising stat from Sunday’s box score was Kansas’ sizable 47-32 advantage in the rebounding category.
“The way we outrebounded Duke is strictly by committee and scrap,” Kansas head coach Bill Self said. “Devonte’ gets six and Malik gets seven and Svi gets 10—that’s a lot of rebounds for our guards. That was the best we’ve done on the glass all year long and the most dominant we’ve been without question.”
The scrap Self references is the last area in which the Blue Devils came up just a tad short. Although the zone placed an onus on Duke's guards to box out and end possessions, the trio of Allen and freshmen Gary Trent Jr. and Trevon Duval combined for just eight rebounds.
But against players like Graham and Mykhailiuk—both of whom experienced back-to-back losses in the Elite Eight before Sunday—the Blue Devils needed to compete for a full 40 minutes and, as it turned out, have a little bit extra in the tank if necessary.
“We weren’t hungry on the glass at all, and by the time we wanted to be hungry, it was too late,” Wendell Carter Jr. said. “We can’t really say we can move on from it, but we’ve just got to kind of try to forget about it.”
Krzyzewski proved to be a mastermind when his brief switch to the zone propelled Duke to a title in 2015. For much of the year, the scheme was exactly what fit this long, athletic Blue Devil team as well and showcased the Hall of Fame head coach’s ability to adapt when needed.
But when both teams brought their A-game and there was a need for a Plan B, Duke ran out of answers.