Duke used to be known for its hard-nosed man-to-man defense. For many Duke fans, the iconic picture of Coach Mike Krzyzewski is him slapping the floor to spur on a defensive stand. While the players still carry on the floor slapping tradition, which always cranks up the volume of the Cameron Crazies, the defense last year appeared to have been muted.
In the 2011-12 season, Duke scored an average of 77.3 points per game. That was good enough to rank Duke 16th in the nation in that particular statistical category. By simply outscoring teams, Duke was able to compile a 27-7 record and a decent season overall.
However, if the shots weren’t falling or if the turnovers piled up, Duke struggled mightily. When opponents slowed the pace and hunkered down on defense, Duke got exposed as a one-dimensional squad.
Against Temple and Florida State, Duke scored 73 points, lower than their season average, and lost both games. In the home loss to Miami, even with the overtime frame, Duke could only muster 74 points.
Most discouraging was the fact that offensive misfires could strike at any time, making Duke inherently inconsistent from minute to minute and game to game. That type of weakness turns tournament play into a game of Russian roulette.
In the ACC Tournament, Duke fumbled toward 59 points as they got knocked out by the defense-minded Seminoles. In the following game, the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Lehigh, turnovers sabotaged Duke’s offense, leading to a lowly 70 points and a first-round exit.
The advanced stats from last year show that while Duke was ranked 11th in adjusted offense, they came in at 70th in adjusted defense. Compare that to National Champions Kentucky, who were second in offense and ninth in defense. Duke’s imbalance was doomed to fail.
Even with a great offense, Duke was still just a one trick pony. They were, therefore, easy for opponents to game-plan against. If you could slow down Duke’s offense, the Blue Devils didn’t have a plan B.
Of course this wasn’t always the case with Duke. Traditionally, the Blue Devils boast a strong defense that, if not their strongest aspect, at least covers up any offensive deficiencies.
As Eamonn Brennan pointed out in an article, since 2003 Duke hadn’t finished worse than 20th in adjusted defense. In 2011, with many of the same players, Duke ranked eighth. This, of course, begs the question: What happened? How did they fall to 70th last year?
Duke’s sometimes overzealous proclivity to shoot from the perimeter was not matched in effort or ability on the defensive end. The very players that made Duke one of the nation’s best three-point threats were liabilities on other side of the ball.
Without a true point guard, Duke often opted for a three-guard lineup that included three natural shooting guards. Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins are two spot up shooters and, dead eye as they might be, tend to be little slow footed defensively. Austin Rivers, meanwhile, showed some speed when he felt inclined to drive to the basket, but his defensive intensity rarely equaled his determination when he had the ball in his hand.
Often left without a true point guard on the floor, there wasn’t a player defensively skilled enough to apply tight pressure on the opposing team’s ball-handler. This is evidenced by Duke snatching only 6.2 steals per game, ranking 190th in the nation. Opponents ran their offensive sets relatively unencumbered and the result was a lot of easy buckets.
Even when Duke put Tyler Thornton on the court to rectify the lack of outside ball pressure, the Blue Devils usually had some combination of Dawkins, Curry or Rivers playing at the 2 and 3 positions. Undersized on the wing, due to a guard-heavy lineup, opposing teams could quickly find mismatches to exploit.
The interior defense didn’t fare much better. The forever-working-on-their-footwork Plumlees of Miles and Mason were never going to set the world on fire with their post defense, but given their size one would think they’d effectively grab some defensive rebounds. Yet, Duke ranked 63rd in defensive boards per game and their defensive rebounding percentage landed them at 168th.
So it would be fair to say that there is room for improvement on all fronts.
The good news for Duke is that a team with three seniors and underclassmen who saw solid playing time last year should have a firm grip on their defensive principles. And even though Austin Rivers’ scoring will be missed, he did lead the team in turnovers last year.
Seth Curry, while not a defensive stalwart and often playing out of position at the point or wing position, is such a smart player that he managed to lead the team last year in steals. Mason Plumlee improved as an inside defender throughout the year and Ryan Kelly stepped up defensively with 31 blocks last season.
This year’s freshman class will also aid Duke on defense. Amile Jefferson has the length and post game to provide help with interior defense and should lend a hand, or two, on the defensive glass. Rasheed Sulaimon, meanwhile, has enough quickness to mark his man on the perimeter.
And while no one is mistaking Alex Murphy for a lock down defender, he does at least provide Duke with the option of playing a true wing player at the 3 spot instead of having to force an undersized guard to defend that position. Lastly, when healthy, Marshall Plumlee should show off some shot-blocking and rebounding skills.
The diversity provided by the incoming and redshirt freshman will allow Duke to more effectively avoid mismatches on the defensive end.
Without Austin Rivers, last year’s leading scorer, Duke will certainly have to step up their defensive effort. Lacking team speed, this should come in the form of traditional half-court man-to-man matchups. In this case, the benefit of losing Rivers is that Duke should coalesce as more of a true team.
Quinn Cook will play at the point, which should not only help to keep the turnovers to a minimum, but should improve the defense as well. In limited minutes last year, Cook accounted for 14 steals. That’s the same number Andre Dawkins had playing an average of 11 minutes more than Cook each game.
In all, Duke should look a lot more like Duke teams of the past. They may be slow, they’ll still shoot a lot of threes, and an older Coach K probably won’t slap the floor as much, but the Blue Devils’ defense should be much improved. As a result, Duke will play with better consistency and not be as dependant on only one facet of the game. This should ensure less stressful regular-season games and greater tournament success.