The Duke Blue Devils stumbled in their first effort to defend the ACC from its ex-Big East intruders when they dropped a heartbreaker at Notre Dame. Less than four weeks later, another interloper ran smack into a big blue buzz saw, as Duke shot Pittsburgh off its own court.
Now comes the main event.
The undefeated Syracuse Orange, owners of a 20-0 record and the nation's No. 2 ranking, become the third and final ACC newcomer to welcome Duke into their house when the two teams tangle on Saturday.
Orange coach Jim Boeheim's 2-3 zone defense has become as much a signature as Bob Knight's red sweaters, Jerry Tarkanian's chewing towel and Roy Williams' constant interjections of "dad-gum." It's helped propel Syracuse to four Final Fours and a national title, leaving a sea of befuddled opponents in its wake.
Duke boss Mike Krzyzewski, the only other member of Boeheim's exclusive "900 wins at one school" club, has seen it all before. His players, however, have not. Saturday's game will be the first time Duke has ever taken the court at the Carrier Dome.
A skilled, veteran team playing a disciplined defense in a highly unique—and highly charged—venue could spell doom for the Devils as they seek another seed-enhancing win for March.
On the other hand, the game could also spell a tremendous opportunity if the Devils find effective ways to attack the 2-3.
Duke grad student Andre Dawkins' roller-coaster career hit a high point Monday night when he drilled home six three-pointers—including four in the final eight minutes—to beat Pitt. He spearheads a Duke perimeter attack that can splash jumpers over the Orange's heads all night.
Right? After all, a lineup of Jabari Parker, Rodney Hood, Dawkins, Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson can be very difficult to patrol. Whom does the defense sag off of to collapse if, say, Parker gets loose inside?
It all sounds very simple, but if it were, Boeheim wouldn't have over 900 wins.
Hitting triples is always a staple of game plans against a zone. Of course, it comes in pretty handy any night, but it can also be the least predictable weapon in a team's arsenal.
Duke sits fifth in the nation with a 41.4 percent three-point field-goal percentage, but the Devils haven't always been on fire NBA Jam-style. From Thanksgiving to Christmas, Duke played five games and shot only 35 percent from deep in those outings. They included battles with UCLA—which temporarily befuddled the Devils by dropping into a zone mid-game—and Eastern Michigan, coached by ex-Boeheim assistant Rob Murphy.
In ACC play, Duke struggled to 32 percent shooting in a loss to Clemson, then hit a similar percentage against Miami, a team that has only recently begun using a 1-2-2 matchup zone itself.
After the Hurricanes' loss to Syracuse last Saturday, Miami coach Jim Larranaga could only shrug. "Against the Syracuse zone, you might be able to get something for a little while, like 3s from the wing or shots from the high post," Larranaga told The Associated Press (via The Washington Post). "But if you get it a couple of times in a row, they take it away."
Taking things away has been an operative feature of the Syracuse defense this season. According to KenPom.com (subscription required), the Orange are fifth in the nation in defensive turnover rate, fourth in block percentage and second in steal percentage. They have no problem with opponents making their shots as long as the other possessions come up empty.
Check out how shabbily Syracuse has treated opposing ball-handlers while letting shooters break a 50.0 percent effective field-goal percentage (eFG%):
The Blue Devils, for their part, both shoot the ball well and take care of it, ranking 12th in eFG% and seventh in offensive turnover percentage. The latter, however, must be the primary concern against this predatory Orange crew.
Learning from Recent History
As mentioned before, Duke played against a derivative of the Syracuse zone when it smacked around Eastern Michigan on December 28. On that particular evening, Parker had himself a night, repeatedly getting free for easy baskets by getting behind the zone (see video above).
Jefferson had a breakout night himself against EMU, pulling 14 rebounds in 21 minutes. The Eagles routinely overspread their zone to combat Duke's shooters, and to their credit, that defense did only allow Duke to hit 34.5 percent from deep. However, Jefferson roamed unchecked under the glass all day.
Now for the obvious: Comparing Boeheim's zone to Murphy's is like comparing Bobby Flay's barbecue to your dad reading something out of Flay's cookbook. The final product may turn out OK, but not all the ingredients will mesh in exactly the same way.
Syracuse's defenders know better how to use the baseline as an extra teammate, and they may not be as prone to losing Parker or Jefferson in the short corner. But both will still be absolutely essential, both on the baseline and in the high post.
Last season, Georgetown's Otto Porter shredded Syracuse's zone for 33 points in the teams' first meeting, then was just as effective playing a facilitator's role in the rematch. This year's Orange might want to review those tapes for ideas to slow the similarly skilled Parker.
Parker may be the perfect weapon to use in the high post when combating the 2-3. He can penetrate off the dribble, kick out to shooters, dump down to a teammate lurking in the short corner or pull up himself with a 15-footer if left open.
As Boeheim said to Donna Ditota of The Post-Standard, "He's a very flexible player. He can play inside, he can play in the post, he can play on the wing. He's one of the more difficult guys in the country, probably, to cover."
Here's the twist: That comment was uttered in February about Porter. All the same, let's keep it on hand in case the coach has to pull it out again in regard to Parker.
Let's Get Physical
The biggest key will be for Duke to play an attacking, physical offense. Against Notre Dame, the Devils settled for a ton of jumpers, particularly when Irish coach Mike Brey went to a four-guard lineup.
In the past two games, resounding wins over Florida State and Pitt, we've seen a different Duke team. The Devils crushed FSU, one of America's tallest teams, on the glass, then outfought the always-rugged Panthers. Duke drew a brutal 29 fouls against Florida State, resulting in 43 free-throw attempts.
Against a zone, offensive rebounds can be plentiful, and Duke has discovered some serious mojo in that area over the past two weeks. On the 136 shots the Blue Devils missed in wins over NC State, Miami, FSU and Pitt, they yanked down 67 offensive boards. That's one shy of 50 percent, folks.
Syracuse has a size advantage over Duke, but not nearly as pronounced as Florida State's. Even that, however, is slightly blunted by Syracuse losing center DaJuan Coleman to a season-ending leg injury.
With Coleman, Boeheim can continually rotate three big bodies while still using stud forward Jerami Grant as an all-purpose sixth man. Without him, Grant has become a starter in six of Syracuse's last seven games, and the team's bench has suffered immensely.
|Opponent||Syracuse Bench Min.||Syr. Bench Pts.||Opp. Bench Pts.|
Duke's platoon substitutions, uptempo attack and plethora of shooters can make even this most disciplined of zone defenses work harder than it's used to. Without the extra body to draw upon, Syracuse's legs will be a major concern in the waning minutes of the game.
Call It an Upset?
Simple: Who wins?
Regardless of the result, Syracuse will maintain at least a share of the ACC lead. Duke will still sit a half-game back with a win.
A loss would be the first for the Orange. Duke has coughed up head-scratchers against Notre Dame and Clemson.
So is a Duke win an upset? Well, that all depends on whether or not you see Duke as one of the arrogant evil empires that command altogether too much respect and love from a biased media establishment.
Or, you could note that this Blue Devils team does in fact have talent and may be more equipped to attack a zone than nearly any team Syracuse has faced all season. The matchup between Duke's weapons and Syracuse's well-drilled defenders should be one of the most entertaining we see all season.
Enjoy it, no matter what color your blood runs.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.