Duke has a Top 10 basketball team and loads of talent, but it needs to figure out how to defend inside in order to make an NCAA tournament run.
On paper, the Blue Devils are the best two-loss team in the country. They have a Player of the Year front-runner in Jabari Parker, another great wing scorer in Rodney Hood and loads of other offensive weapons with varied skill sets.
Besides, their two losses came against Kansas and Arizona, both of whom were Top Five teams at the time they faced Duke. The Jayhawks have since dropped to 18th, but the Wildcats were just two votes shy of a unanimous No. 1 ranking in the last AP poll.
But look at those two defeats closely, and you see a common trend: The winning team hit a high percentage of its two-point attempts.
Duke was fine against Arizona from outside, holding the Wildcats to 4-of-15 on threes, but 'Zona took what it wanted on post-ups and cuts to the rim, hitting 18 of its 33 two-point attempts for a 54.5 percentage inside the arc.
That was in a game where every Wildcat scored in double digits, but no one scored more than 15 points. Earlier in the season, Kansas' Perry Ellis and Andrew Wiggins each broke 20 as the Jayhawks hit 29-of-49 two-pointers, or 59 percent.
You can chalk up those results to the caliber of the competition, at which point we have to include Duke's scare against the immortal Vermont Catamounts in the conversation.
Vermont shot—and this is true—75.6 percent on its two-point attempts, hitting 31-of-41 as it fell by one at Cameron. A win would have elevated the Catamounts to 2-4; they are now 4-7 and beat UMass Lowell for their first and only road victory.
Yes, that game was certainly an aberration, but something has to give. To identify the problem, look under the rim.
By default, Amile Jefferson is Duke's starting center. The sophomore is 6'9", 210 pounds and does not have the strength to defend any true big the Blue Devils face. He and Josh Hairston platoon as Duke's primary post defender, but the 6'8", 235-pound senior hardly has any skill to go with his marginal size.
Duke has just one player taller than 6'9" on its roster: Marshall Plumlee. He's a true 7-footer, but without any of the ball skills, instincts or awareness necessary to use his size productively.
The most reasonable solution from a defensive standpoint would be for Jabari to guard the best opposing post scorer, but Duke then runs the risk of its best player getting into foul trouble. Hood can carry the scoring load, but the Blue Devils aren't the same if they're without Parker's two-way play for an extended stretch.
Fear of fouling is also giving opponents more room to shoot. Both Kansas and Arizona made more than 20 free throws, while Duke responded with 16 or fewer. That is not true for the Vermont game, where the Blue Devils eschewed fouling in favor of letting Vermont hit an obscene amount of shots.
What Mike Krzyzewski must preach over the remainder of the season is discipline and players moving their feet rather than defending with their hands.
It's hard to say Duke has to go for fewer steals; they're currently averaging 6.6 per game, tied with Navy for 151st in the nation. But sacrificing turnovers to redouble efforts to contain in man defense will do this team well in the long run.
The December 19 win over UCLA, if you look closely, is a nice example of how Duke should play every game. Though Duke topped its season average with eight steals, Quinn Cook got all of them. First of all, good on Cook. Secondly, it's no surprise the Bruins only went to the line 13 times in the contest.
If the Blue Devils can stay in front of their men, they won't have to hand check to compensate for Duke's lack of a rim protector.
This is especially true for Parker. Come tournament time, he'll have to guard the opposing team's best scorer, whether he's a wing or a big, and Coach K can't worry about his best player being too foul-prone to defend inside. That's not so much a knock on Parker's defensive ability as it is a matter of adapting to circumstance.
Built around a player like Parker, Duke has the talent to win a national championship, but not the size. This team won't figure out how to protect the rim, and has to find alternate ways to defend. The tricks to compensate will not be ideal, but they're more favorable to giving up high-percentage shots in bunches.