Over the course of this season, the Blue Devils have gone from boys to men, singing a different tune in order to string wins together against strong opponents. Wednesday night’s win was perhaps the best example of this maturity, as Duke rolled past Louisville to keep its chances of getting into the NCAA tournament alive.
Blue Devil nation can point to numerous reasons why Duke was able to make its win against Louisville appear almost effortless, despite not being able to keep the upper hand against the Cardinals in the teams’ previous two matchups. Freshman breakout star Mark Williams played phenomenally, earning a 23-point, 19-rebound double-double. Sophomore All-ACC first teamer Matthew Hurt continued his offensive downpour, scoring 20 points on 7-of-12 shooting. But the biggest factor in Duke keeping Louisville at bay for most of the match was an identity shift that began on the defensive side of the ball.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski said that he and his coaching staff decided to enlist a specific man-to-man halfcourt defense, in which every player is constantly switching who they’re defending, especially on screens.
“We decided it was the best way to try and keep [Louisville guards Carlik Jones and David Johnson] out of the lane,” Krzyzewski said. “Our guys were able to pick [the defense] up in an hour.”
Despite the quick turnaround and limited practice time with this particular defensive set, the Blue Devils executed almost to perfection, forcing Louisville into numerous bad shots and keeping them far away from the paint. 7-footer Williams' solid rim protection anchored Duke’s defense, which held the Cardinals to a putrid 30.6% clip from the field. Louisville didn’t get much help from its usual workhorse Jones, who pitched in just 13 points on 5-of-14 shooting, despite coming into the game with averages of nearly 25 points on 45.5% shooting against the Blue Devils this season.
“[Jones] is as good of a guard as there is in our conference—he’s terrific,” Krzyzewski said. “We just tried to smother the lane...he still got in there a couple times, but not like he has in the first two games he played against us.”
If Louisville was to capitalize on its scoring runs and actually take significant leads, it would have been because of Jones’ uncanny ability to find space in the open floor. Duke’s offense gave the Cardinals numerous opportunities to do so, going multiple stretches without a bucket. But what kept the Blue Devils afloat was the defensive identity shift that halted Louusiville runs at just the right times.
Above all else, an optimistic, but focused mindset is what helped Duke contain the Cardinals Wednesday. It’s no secret that the Blue Devils’ NCAA tournament chances were riding on a win. This kind of pressure would have suffocated this young, inexperienced Duke squad just a month ago, especially after an abysmal two-minute period near the end of the first half in which the Blue Devils let up a 14-point lead and allowed Louisville to come back and tie the game. However, Duke showed composure and grit after that Cardinal scoring run, regaining the lead with a corner three to end the first half and beginning the second period on a 9-0 run.
“We just knew it was gonna be a fight,” Williams said. “We fought for the first 12 minutes and had a little lapse...but we knew we had to start out aggressive and keep our foot on the gas.”
And fight they did. Duke didn’t let up for the rest of the match, making plays when it needed to time and time again. A casual fan would have never guessed that this Lousiville squad had outplayed the Blue Devils not once but two times before, as this new Duke team, the one that made its debut against Virginia just a couple weeks back, made a reappearance in Greensboro to secure the victory.
If the Blue Devils can continue to rely on their halfcourt defense to push them through games when their offense isn’t flowing, the team just might be able to pull together a couple more wins on a journey to try and earn that sweet, sweet bid to the NCAA tournament. But if Duke instead turns back to bad habits—turnovers, ill-advised shots and poor communication on defense—then just like the famous band Boys II Men would say, it’ll be the “End of the Road” for Duke.
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