Ben Leonard, columnist for the Blue Zone, makes a case for Duke's defense, not its explosive offense, being the driving force behind the team's success:
You’ve seen Zion Williamson’s dunk highlights over and over again, for good reason.
But the most important story this season has been Williamson and his fellow freshmen’s coalescence on defense. The Blue Devils are fifth in adjusted offensive efficiency rating according to KenPom.com, but also fifth in the site's defensive efficiency rating.
That’s truly remarkable for a team starting several players just months removed from high school. How has Duke been able to cobble together an elite defense quickly, something last year’s young squad couldn’t?
Without weak spots on defense, they’ve been able to consistently cause chaos in a man-to-man defense—something last year’s squad couldn’t consistently do.
Last year’s squad was littered with talent, from two lottery picks in freshmen Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. to gritty senior Grayson Allen to early second round pick Gary Trent Jr. But they kept finding themselves in shootouts.
Outside a dud of an overtime loss without point guard Tre Jones for most of the game, Duke has completely avoided the migraine-inducing defensive meltdowns that plagued the Blue Devils in the first half of last season.
Let's run through some of those: giving up 81 points to Portland State, 80 to South Dakota, 89 to Boston College, 93 to Florida State, 96 to North Carolina State. Duke couldn’t find a defense that worked until it switched to a matchup-zone—outside of the norm for the Blue Devils.
Last year’s squad had three not-stellar defenders in Allen, Trent and Trevon Duval. This year, all of Duke’s defenders are above average, if not very good—they all have better defensive ratings than last year's starters.
Having no true weak spots on defense has allowed Duke to be able to run a man-to-man defense effectively this time around. Last year, teams could exploit mismatches on defense and impose their will. On this team, there's no one opponents can consistently try to exploit.
With this stronger top-to-bottom unit, the Blue Devils have been able to create utter chaos.
Spearheaded by Williamson and Marques Bolden’s combined four swats per game, Duke leads the nation in blocks and is fourth in steals—good for 46th in the nation in turnovers. That’s a huge spike from last year, in which the Blue Devils ranked No. 115 in forcing turnovers.
Thanks in part to Williamson's captivating dunks and R.J. Barrett's slashing, Duke is poised for a deep March run.
But don't forget about the defense. It could give Duke the balance it needs to go all the way.
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Managing Editor 2018-19, 2019-2020 Features & Investigations Editor
A member of the class of 2020 hailing from San Mateo, Calif., Ben is The Chronicle's Towerview Editor and Investigations Editor. Outside of the Chronicle, he is a public policy major working towards a journalism certificate, has interned at the Tampa Bay Times and NBC News and frequents Pitchforks.