OMAHA, Neb.—Chances are you’ll see a whole lot of blue when looking at the seats in the CenturyLink Center Sunday when Duke takes on Kansas.
With two of the sport’s bluebloods taking the court for a chance to reach the Final Four, it would be easy to assume this season has been business as usual for both the Blue Devils and Jayhawks.
But as other contenders have fallen by the wayside in one of the most unpredictable NCAA tournaments ever, head coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Bill Self have reached this point by making adjustments to the styles that made them the best in the game.
For Duke, Krzyzewski has transitioned from his man-to-man scheme to a zone defense that has been much more effective for his young squad. On the other side of the court, Self has played smaller lineups featuring four guards around 7-footer Udoka Azubuike.
At times, the changes have raised questions about each team, but come Sunday, both programs find themselves on the precipice of another Final Four appearance.
“Youth and personnel dictate a lot of it,” Self said. “I can’t speak for any other program, but I would think that Duke’s always been historically one of the best defensive teams in the country. But the zone with them is so effective because of their size and length. So strategically, it’s a good move. And with us, we didn’t do it because we chose to. We did it because of the personnel.”
After getting torched by Florida State and Boston College early in ACC play, Duke was forced to consider the viability of its man-to-man scheme. Although the team treaded water in ACC play, consecutive losses to St. John’s and North Carolina led to the full-time switch. The results were immediate, as the Blue Devils allowed fewer than 70 points in each of their next eight games, going 7-1 in that span.
By capitalizing on the length of their perimeter players and size of their bigs, Duke skyrocketed up KenPom’s defensive efficiency rating. As the team grew into the zone, the Blue Devils began to communicate better on the court and grow tighter as a unit.
“We give a lot of thought to everything,” Krzyzewski said. “Doesn’t mean that our thoughts are always right. We were playing zone all year. And when we decided to go to it, there’s got to be one primary defense that you spend most of your time doing. And we made that decision that it would be zone, and it just fits our team better.”
The warning sirens went off for Kansas when the team dropped consecutive nonconference games to Washington and Arizona State, the latter coming in vaunted Allen Fieldhouse. Although the Jayhawks continued their dominance of the Big 12 with a 14th consecutive regular-season crown, occasional hiccups to the likes of Oklahoma State and Baylor created further doubts. At times, many considered this one of the worst defensive teams Self has had in Lawrence.
But Kansas found its stride in the Big 12 tournament, as sophomore Malik Newman emerged as the secondary scoring threat the team needed alongside Devonte’ Graham. The Mississippi State transfer has averaged 21.2 points per game in his last six games and combined with Graham, Lagerald Vick and Svi Mykhailiuk to form a quartet of lethal perimeter shooters. All of a sudden, Kansas is peaking and playing with a different level of confidence.
“This year’s different,” Self said. “Even though we’re a 1 seed, every time you talk to somebody it’s always: What’s wrong with them? Nobody ever says what’s good with us. They’re too small, they don’t defensively rebound, they can’t defend their home court, they’re this or that. And the guys still end up pulling together.”
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With both teams’ transitions essentially complete, the Elite Eight matchup between the bluebloods features an intriguing clash of styles.
The Jayhawks will likely battle either Carter or Bagley down low with the 6-foot-8 Mykhailiuk. If Azubuike finds himself in foul trouble, a small Kansas front line could get even smaller. Duke’s advantage on the offensive end may be a weakness on defense, as Bagley will likely be stretched all the way out to the arc in the zone against one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the nation.
“We don’t play like them. We play different,” Self said. “So if we play our game—and everybody’s talking about how do we match up with them—well, hopefully we can be in a game that forces them to kind of play a little differently to match up with us.”
And if the action on the court is not enough, the matchup on the sidelines will captivate the college basketball world as well. For all his success in the Big 12, Self has only made two Final Fours and has been bounced in the Elite Eight in consecutive seasons. Across the floor, Krzyzewski will be looking to pass John Wooden with an astounding 13th career Final Four appearance.
One thing that will stay constant with Self and Krzyzewski is that the two will remain among the hungriest coaches in college basketball. On Sunday, one of them will be headed back to the Final Four as a testament to his willingness to change his coaching philosophy.