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Column: Duke has adjusted defensively in March. Saturday will be no different

Duke's defensive adjustments have fueled its run to the Final Four.
Duke's defensive adjustments have fueled its run to the Final Four.

“Twelve!”

Holding up one finger on his right hand and two on his left, Mike Krzyzewski yelled out that signal to his players, who held a nine-point lead with just more than 12 minutes to play in Saturday’s eventual Elite Eight victory against Arkansas. 

In a flash, the Blue Devils shifted into a 2-3 zone for the first time all night. After utilizing the defensive scheme on 52% of possessions during the second half of his team’s triumph against Texas Tech in the Sweet 16, Krzyzewski brought it out again.

I’ll be completely honest. I was watching the game with a group of friends, and the first thing I said from the couch was, “I don’t know.” The Razorbacks had some ground to make up and were likely to try and shoot their way back into the contest. 

Combine that with a soft 2-3, and JD Notae, Trey Wade and Stanley Umude could get some open looks from distance. That was, at face value, a perfect storm for an Arkansas rally. 

But in a perfect Krzyzewski wrinkle, Duke did not come out in a soft 2-3, as Trevor Keels and Wendell Moore Jr.—and later Jeremy Roach—extended out past the 3-point line, Paolo Banchero and AJ Griffin kept close tabs on the corners and Mark Williams inched up to just past midway between the restricted area and the charity stripe. 

Call it an aggressive 2-3, a matchup zone or anything you want. Put simply, it was the perfect call to prevent Arkansas from getting into its go-to ball screen actions. 

Add in a pristine stretch on the other end, in which Duke went to a couple of staples—a cross-screen to free up Banchero on the low block and a Griffin curl—and the Blue Devils countered Arkansas beautifully with a 10-0 run. From there, Krzyzewski’s 13th Final Four was basically a formality. 

To reach his 10th national title game, though, Coach K and his group will have to work some magic once more on the defensive end. 

But it likely will not include a zone. North Carolina can stretch the floor with the best of ‘em, as Brady Manek, RJ Davis and Caleb Love all shoot better than 37% from downtown. Tar Heel head coach Hubert Davis has gone away from Roy Williams’ typical double low-post sets, and it has paid off with an unlikely run to New Orleans. 

Where Duke will truly have to clean things up defensively is on ball screens. That’s not too revolutionary, but a quick look at the tape from North Carolina’s 94-81 win in Cameron Indoor Stadium on the final night of the regular season reveals the cold hard truth. 

Throughout that 55-point second half, the Tar Heels torched the Blue Devils in the 1-5 pick and roll. Allowing Love and Davis to get into the middle of the floor with ease, along with late rotations by Williams and Banchero, just gifted North Carolina a few routine pull-up jumpers and some Armando Bacot flushes. 

Saturday, you can expect Duke to lock things down on that end to a much greater extent, for a couple of reasons. 

First, the Blue Devils will have nearly a week of preparation, a week that Coach K said began with recovery in the weight room and will ramp up. Their chemistry on the defensive end should be Final Four-level come tipoff Saturday, a continuation of how much that facet has improved in the NCAA tournament.

Second, Duke showed major improvements in guarding ball screens against Arkansas. One specific stretch, near the 11-minute mark of the first half, stands out. Moore iced the impending screens hard while guarding Notae on the left wing, forcing the Razorback guard baseline. Banchero and Theo John were terrific in hedging, and the ball got out of Notae’s hands in a hurry.

There are some similarities between Notae and the Tar Heels’ Love, so that strategy could be of use for Krzyzewski and his staff in the Caesars Superdome. 

All in all, defensive adjustments are a massive reason why Duke has gotten this far. It has looked the part on that end of the court, especially when needing those key stops that you always need in March—the stops that in the aforementioned loss to North Carolina and during the ACC tournament, it did not get. 

To this day, defense wins championships. For Duke, a program that cut its teeth as a menacing defensive unit under Krzyzewski, why should it be any different?


Max Rego

Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.

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