After defeating Toledo 58-41 Sunday, Duke will travel to Portland, Ore., for the Phil Knight Legacy tournament. The Blue Devils will first face UConn, and depending on the results, will face Iowa or Oregon State in the following game. Here are five things to know before the tournament begins Friday.
The Blue Devils have gotten off to an excellent start thus far, winning their first five contests for the second-straight season. However, Duke has not played a team ranked within the RPI top 50 nor a team ranked in the AP Poll. This tournament features two teams within the AP top-10 in No. 9 Iowa and No. 3 UConn, and an undefeated Oregon State team as well. This will be the best competition the Blue Devils have faced, and it will be interesting to see how Kara Lawson’s bunch will respond to that.
“Now we’ll face the best team we have played so far to this point, and we’ll need a really good performance on both ends to come away with the victory,” Lawson said in her press conference Tuesday.
This tournament will be an important measuring stick to determine Duke’s standing within a tough ACC and will give the Blue Devils helpful nonconference experience against some of the best teams in the country.
Slowing Azzi Fudd
Much of the reason for Duke’s success has been on the defensive end. The Blue Devils have the 15th-best scoring defense in the country, as they are only giving up 47.4 points per game. In addition, Duke has held opponents to 29.8% shooting from the field, which is the ninth-best mark in the country. With increased size and athleticism at all positions, Duke has given opponents troubles with its full-court press.
“We've got pretty good players and they play really hard on that end of the floor,” said Lawson. “I think we have a decent amount of athleticism throughout our positions which helps us on that end.”
The competition this week will bring an additional challenge for the Blue Devils to continue their stout defense. UConn is averaging 90.7 points per game, good for seventh in the country. If Duke is to face Iowa, it is also scoring 90 points per contest. UConn guard Azzi Fudd is having a historic campaign, averaging 30 points per game, second in the country. She has the ability to score at all three levels and is surrounded by a plethora of talent.
“You have to understand that a great scorer is going to score, you’re not going to shut them out. So you just have to, I think more than anything, try and make them work for their shots,” said Lawson on Fudd.
Duke will need to continue its aggressive defense while maintaining defensive discipline to take down the Huskies.
One advantage Duke could have against the Huskies is depth. After an ACL injury forced sensational guard Paige Bueckers to miss the entire 2022-2023 season, UConn also lost forward Ice Brady for the season with a patella injury. In addition, the Huskies will be without graduate forward Dorka Juhász for the tournament after she suffered a thumb injury last week. Juhász is averaging 10 points per game this season, and with the loss of Brady, UConn will be without two of its best bigs.
Duke has nine players who are averaging more than five points per game, and UConn only has four outside of Juhász. This could be the key to victory for the Blue Devils, who like to press and speed up teams, which could tire out UConn come the fourth quarter.
“I think our depth has helped us on [the defensive] end of the floor to be able to press full-court and make things harder for people,” said Lawson.
If Duke can take advantage of this depth and play to its strengths Friday, it will have a shot at defeating UConn.
Part of Duke’s success on the defensive end has been forcing turnovers and capitalizing on the other end. The Blue Devils have scored 26.6 points off of turnovers through the first five games this season, nearly double their average from a season ago. While playing better competition will make it more difficult to force turnovers for easy layups on the other end, this could be a factor to help Duke’s offense, especially when the half-court offense is struggling. Part of that struggle has come from committing turnovers on the offensive end, as Duke had 19 turnovers against Toledo.
“I think we need to turn it over less,” said Lawson. “I thought we were a little careless with the ball when an option didn't present itself immediately.”
Lawson pointed out that executing in the half-court will be extremely important in the tournament against better teams, who make it increasingly difficult to find openings in half-court sets. Turnover margin will be key for Duke, which will have to limit turnovers while maximizing the number of transition points it has.
One thing that could certainly bolster Duke’s half-court offense is 3-point shooting. Up to this point, Duke has not shot the ball well from behind the arc. The Blue Devils currently have both the lowest 3-point percentage and total 3-pointers in the ACC.
It is not that Duke lacks capable shooters, but there has been some inconsistency from beyond the arc. Granted, with the emergence of Kennedy Brown in the paint along with transition offense, there has not been a large need for Duke to shoot a high volume from behind the arc. Nevertheless, increasing 3-pointers will be necessary for Duke to keep up offensively with the teams in this tournament. If Duke shoots the 3-pointer better, it could space the floor and give Brown and Mia Heide one-on-one paint opportunities, as they will have the size advantage Friday.
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Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.