Defense leads to offense.
It's an old adage that rings truer than ever when you have two of the most smothering defensive guards in the ACC, Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire. The duo gained national prominence for their roles in leading a 23-point comeback against Louisville last season, and they anchored the defense again tonight from the get-go.
After opting to start a three-guard lineup of Jones, Goldwire and the athletic freshman Cassius Stanley, Duke began the game with a full-court press that prevented Fort Valley State from ever setting up its offense. Less than two minutes into the game and three turnovers later, the Wildcats called timeout and substituted out all five starters as the Blue Devils jumped to a quick 8-0 lead. Eight consecutive points to start the game soon ballooned to 17, and it was abundantly clear that there would be no scare for the Blue Devils tonight as there was in the waning moments of last weekend's exhibition debut against Northwest Missouri State.
"It really started on defense," sophomore forward Joey Baker said. "We didn’t play the defense we wanted to on Saturday, so that’s what we've been working on the past couple days—playing harder and more together and translating that into offense."
In getting the start tonight, Goldwire knew he was sent out on the court for defensive purposes. Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski entrusted him with a game-high 21 minutes, and he delivered with five steals. What some may not have predicted, however, was his game-high eight assists compared to just one turnover.
With the steals came fastbreak opportunities, none more elegant than his steal and pass that led to a stunning reverse slam from Cassius Stanley in which the freshman brought it down and dunked it over his opponent’s head with ease. That sequence highlighted a stretch of four straight steals leading to four straight dunks to start off the second half.
"Open court—you know these guys can play above the rim," freshman Matthew Hurt said. "I think getting steals lets our players play basketball. Just doing what we can do in transition."
At the other guard spot, Jones played a solid game as well, recording three steals to go along with six assists. He and Goldwire seemed to relish the opportunity to play together, with their combined defensive intensity appearing to intimidate the Wildcat guards. Unceasing traps in the backcourt combined with quick hands to clog seemingly every passing lane, allowed the Blue Devils to get out in transition time and time again.
"We feed off of each other, me and Tre," Goldwire said. "We know we both have to play defense, so [just trying] to get after other guards is something that we pride ourselves for."
Without the star power of Zion Williamson or R.J. Barrett this season, Duke knows it must embrace a more team-like mentality, with every man playing his part. And while Jones and Goldwire may have been the leaders, defensive pressure could be seen in every possession as it carried over to the entirety of the squad. All 14 players on the roster saw playing time, and 10 recorded at least one steal, with five players logging three or more takeaways. Fort Valley State was only able to attempt 55 shots, compared to 82 for the Blue Devils.
"We know as a team that defense is huge for us this year," Jones said. "We have a lot of depth, more than we’ve had in years past. Just having that depth will be huge for us, trying to wear teams out and keep guys fresh for us."
While not every player will see the floor every night, Duke certainly bought into the defensive mindset as a whole this game. As the Blue Devils move on to Madison Square Garden next week to open up their regular season slate against Kansas, the nation will see if defense can become this team's identity, as Krzyzewski hopes.
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"It’s got to be a balanced team," Krzyzewski said. "And the best way to be balanced is to have everyone play good defense."