Prior to the start of the NCAA tournament, one of the biggest concerns for the Duke Blue Devils was defense.
The Blue Devils were coming off an ugly loss to Maryland in the ACC tournament where they had one of their worst defensive efforts of the year. Duke allowed the Terrapins to score 83 points and shoot 51 percent from the field, including 40 percent from three-point range.
A performance like this had many fans worried that the Blue Devils would face an opponent in the NCAA tournament that would expose their defensive flaws.
Instead, the opposite has happened—Duke has found their defensive stride and the team is now winning games with its defense.
In Duke's opening game against Albany, the Blue Devils actually had their poorest defensive performance of the NCAA tournament. The outcome of the game was never really in doubt, but Duke allowed Albany to stay within striking distance while shooting 9-of-15 from beyond the three-point line.
Mike Krzyzewski's team stepped up the defensive intensity to a new level in the next game against Creighton.
The Bluejays entered the contest as one of the best offensive teams in the country, averaging over 75 points per game and leading the nation in field-goal percentage at 50.8 percent. Creighton was also led by Doug McDermott, a junior All-American regarded as one of the most complete offensive players in the country.
Duke smothered McDermott and the rest of the Bluejays in a 66-50 battle that the Blue Devils controlled throughout most of the game. Duke's stifling defense held Creighton to shooting only 30 percent from the field and only 2-of-19 from three-point range.
It was an impressive display of Duke proving it can win with its defense even if its shots aren't falling.
The Blue Devils proved the same thing again in a 71-61 victory over Michigan State on Friday night.
Entering the game, Michigan State was regarded as the more physical team who would rely on defense and rebounding to defeat Duke. Instead, the Blue Devils held their own on the glass and used their own intense defense to come away with another comfortable win to reach the Elite Eight.
Duke limited Michigan State's talented trio of Adreian Payne, Derrick Nix and Gary Harris to a combined 8-for-31 shooting night and held the Spartans to only seven field goals in the second half.
In what many Duke fans would have never expected coming into this NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils have won three games while not playing particularly well on offense.
Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly have played terrific interior defense and the impact Tyler Thornton has made with his defensive effort and intensity cannot be quantified.
As Doug Gottlieb said on CBS following Duke's win over Michigan State, "The Blue Devils are playing championship-level defense."
Now, Duke will take on the Louisville Cardinals for a spot in the Final Four. And with the way the Blue Devils have played over the past three games, they are definitely capable of knocking off the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament.
Rasheed Sulaimon and Tyler Thornton will play critical roles in slowing down Louisville's talented guards and Quinn Cook needs to have a strong game after a terrible performance against Michigan State.
It will be interesting to see how Coach K and his staff game-plan for Louisville's potent attack, but they have to feel very confident in the level of defense the team is playing. If the Blue Devils can keep it up, it's a level good enough to cut down the nets in Atlanta.
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