It's no secret that without starting point guard Tre Jones, the Blue Devils run the serious risk of a tough drop off in offensive and defensive efficiency.
And yet, without one of the most efficient point guards in Duke history, the Blue Devils were able to pull enough out of their back pocket to knock off an undefeated Virginia squad.
Coming off a tough loss Monday and facing a team that is deadly on both sides of the ball, the Blue Devils knew they would need a combination of new defensive sets and standout individual performances to take out the Cavaliers. From a zone defense to heavy switching to clutch performances down the stretch, Duke made all the adjustments it needed in the second half of a home court slugfest to avoid a two game losing skid.
"It was a lot of adversity playing Syracuse here on Monday, but [Zion] and R.J. played the whole game, 45 minutes," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "That helped them tonight, the fact that they did that then. So, how do you handle that? You don’t handle it until you have to handle it. You can’t practice that. The times we’ve won big games in our program for championships, usually our best players have to play a lot of minutes. Hopefully what they’re learning right now will help them going forward."
The most obvious adjustment Duke had to account for was not having Jones. Without having the young Blue Devils' constant ball pressure and keen eye for playmaking, Duke had to rely on fellow freshman R.J. Barrett to keep the offense afloat. Although the Canadian ran point during the Blue Devils' Canada tour this past summer, Barrett didn't look comfortable handling the ball for extended periods of time, logging 12 turnovers over three games.
In contrast against the Cavaliers, Barrett only coughed the ball up once, keeping control despite running the point while simultaneously attacking the lane.
Although the freshman forward only managed three assists throughout the evening, the Blue Devils accounted for this by running a constantly-moving offensive setup to keep Virginia's defenders on their heels. Duke was able to throw the Cavaliers off just enough to generate key driving lanes for the likes of Barrett and Zion Williamson, giving the Blue Devils their 46 points in the paint.
"I was just trying to set up the team and really read what the defense was giving me," Barrett said on running the point. "It was very easy when you have guys like Zion and Cam on the wing. "
Defensively, Duke also switched up its game to make up for weaknesses without Jones.
Without the Apple Valley, Minn., native to keep pressure on the likes of Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, the Blue Devils instead chose to switch on defense at every position, making the most of their size advantage to cut off Virginia's momentum. Marques Bolden, who had struggled all season to defend the wing against agile shooters, put enough pressure on Guy and Jerome to deny them their signature catch-and-shoot threes.
Jack White and Cam Reddish also stepped up in guarding Virginia's tougher shooters, forcing the visiting team to a pitiful 3-for-17 showing beyond the arc.
When the Cavaliers decided to change things up a bit out of halftime, using Jerome and Braxton Key drive the lane, Virginia erased Duke's lead. And although the Blue Devils stuck with their usual man-to-man for most of the second half, they did switch into a 2-3 zone for a few possessions during the game's final minutes.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
It took Duke's freshmen a couple of trips to settle into the zone, but the Blue Devils generated a handful of crucial stops and Cavalier turnovers as Duke grabbed the lead for good.
"They’re mentally tough," Krzyzewski said of the freshmen switching to a zone. "We haven’t made them mentally tough, they came here mentally tough—especially those two kids Zion and R.J—they’ve played at a high level of scrutiny. They got tired and we got tired too, it was that type of game. So, we went zone a little bit to try and save us and we covered it fairly well. We’re obviously really tired, and happy and ecstatic."
There's no telling when Jones will be back. But as long as Duke can make the adjusted needed to keep opponents on their toes, the Blue Devils showed that they will remain among the nation's elite.