The Duke Blue Devils bucked conventional wisdom by leaving their best player, freshman Jabari Parker, on the bench in the waning moments of their ACC opener against Notre Dame.
Conventional wisdom doesn't like being bucked: Duke suffered its first loss against an unranked opponent this season.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was blunt in his explanation for Parker's late-game absence. “He wasn’t playing well,” Krzyzewski told the media after the game, as reported by Raleigh, N.C.'s News & Observer. “For any kid who is not playing well, you should try to find a kid that is playing well. But that happens. Sometimes kids don’t play well throughout the game. He just wasn’t having a good game."
It reads like a vintage Krzyzewski motivational gambit, trying to light a fire under Parker's posterior by putting the bench under it first.
Coach K is not above rubbing any player's face in his mistakes, even the superstars. Fritz Knapp's book Mike Krzyzewski: Encouragement mentions a famous tape session with All-American point guard Bobby Hurley during the 1990-91 season. The coach shook Hurley out of a funk of pouting and finger-pointing by screening a five-minute reel of his worst behavior.
Hurley and his teammates responded with a run to a second straight national championship. Parker's response is yet to be determined.
But what about the Devils' opponents? Will the Notre Dame tape be broken down like the Zapruder film, seeking answers and inspirations for handling Duke's otherworldly freshman? And if so, are there answers to be found?
Mix and Match
Notre Dame coach Mike Brey had his charges switching defenses constantly, balancing man-to-man looks on Parker using several different defenders with 2-3 zone principles designed to pack the lane. The Irish were perfectly content to let Duke rain away from three as long as Parker was accounted for.
Call it "The Jabari Rules."
“We had a lot of different guys on him,” Brey said, as reported by The Sporting News. “I think it was a great team awareness of him."
ND's defensive pressure was more effective than most on Parker thanks to the superior athletic ability of its big men. Sophomore Austin Burgett (6'9", 227 lbs) set the tone for the day when he viciously stuffed Parker in the lane, getting up far enough that he could have swatted the shot with his elbow.
Swingman Pat Connaughton, 255-pound senior Garrick Sherman and 242-pound Zach Auguste also spent plenty of time in Parker's face. Just when the freshman was used to the bigger bodies muscling him around, the quicker Connaughton took him off balance.
The most obvious candidate to match the varying looks Parker saw against the Irish is Virginia. Coach Tony Bennett's pack-line defense is tailor-made to close Parker's driving lanes. The Cavaliers also possess an array of defenders well built for the task, with 6'11" Mike Tobey anchoring behind athletic forwards Akil Mitchell, Darion Atkins and Justin Anderson.
Miami is another team with good size capable of making Parker's life difficult in the lane.
Divide and Conquer
When the Irish big guys weren't dislodging Parker on the offensive end, Brey called for five-out offensive sets that left the floor spread wide for veteran point guard Eric Atkins. Free to control the ball following the dismissal of backcourt mate Jerian Grant, Atkins dictated the game to the tune of 19 points and 11 assists.
Those wide sets demanded quick help defense on drives, and that help was often late in coming. Parker was a step slow in contesting a Connaughton thunder dunk with less than five minutes remaining, and it wasn't long after that play that Coach K pulled the plug on Parker.
Much has been written about the Blue Devils' issues in defending the post and Coach K's inconsistent usage of his bigs, including here on Bleacher Report. Parker's rebounding and defense were reasonably effective against some of Duke's less potent non-conference opposition, but he's 0-for-1 in regards to being exposed by ACC foes.
The best way to shut down any opposing player is to staple him to the bench, usually via foul trouble. Coach K, however, will do that dirty work for his opponent if one of the Blue Devils is looking lost on defense, and that was the most apt adjective to describe Parker's effort on Saturday.
The surprising aspect of Notre Dame's effort against Duke was the effectiveness of the full array of Irish perimeter talent, including freshmen V.J. Beachem and Steve Vasturia. The two had played a total of 74 minutes in eight December games with four DNPs (did not play) each.
An opponent who has the perimeter shooters to spread Duke out, the athletes to make continuous quick cuts and a skilled point guard to take advantage of the lanes will pose a threat to Parker as the season wears on.
Most difficult ACC matchup for Jabari Parker?
However, not many ACC opponents fit that mold, not even favorites Syracuse and North Carolina. Neither has an abundance of fearsome shooters, but they are led by daring floor generals. UNC has the sheer bulk to batter Duke on the glass, while Syracuse has its always-inscrutable 2-3 zone.
Clemson may be dangerous to the Devils if players other than K.J. McDaniels get baskets on the other end of Rod Hall's passes. Jordan Roper and Adonis Filer can certainly fill it up on a good night.
In the end, this looks a lot like a case of capturing lightning in a bottle.
Notre Dame's efficient offense and disciplined defense combined to make Parker look mortal on either end. Brey's players needed a statement win, especially in the wake of Grant leaving the program.
Coach K, for one, doesn't seem too concerned about a January loss or its effect on Parker's psyche.
“Well, he is a human being,” Krzyzewski said, per the News & Observer. “He didn’t play well today; that is part of being a freshman. Hopefully he will recover quickly from that.”
At this point, Jabari Parker's toughest opposition may lie between his own ears. If Notre Dame did establish a blueprint for shutting Parker down, there may not be anyone able to reproduce it.
And that would include the Irish themselves.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.