The UNC Tar Heels won the ACC (Keys to Beating the Heels), but it almost feels like Duke is still the favorite in this weekend's ACC Tournament. Every team in the ACC is wondering: How do we beat them?
Two multifaceted and interconnected suggestions:
Put Them on Their Heels Early (and Keep Them There)
No pun intended, but what the Tar Heels were able to do at the Dean Dome on March 5 was a blueprint for other ACC teams. Buried beneath the mystique of the Blue Devils, they are not a team that weathers adversity well together. Nolan Smith, deserving ACC Player of the Year that he is, often fails to command the emotion and attention of his teammates.
On one hand, Duke is a team capable of going on runs. Exhibit A would be their 18-6 run to start the second half comeback against UNC. They never looked back, and the Cameron Indoor crowd lifted them to a win and the school’s largest halftime deficit overcome since 1959.
However, in its losses, Duke has shown a weakness in character and resiliency can arise. In their loss against North Carolina, the Tar Heels knocked Duke down early and refused to take their foot off the Devils’ neck. Harrison Barnes looked to be the senior and Kyle Singler the freshman in their matchup, while Duke’s towering frontcourt had a better chance of flying fighter jets than scoring on UNC’s dynamic frontline.
Or how about the loss at Madison Square Garden to St. John’s, in which the Red Storm came out throwing haymakers, took a 21-point lead in at halftime and never let Duke’s deficit back into single digits.
Florida State and Virginia Tech were supposed to be mutts yipping at the defending ACC and National Champions’ heels. But when they took leads into the locker room, Duke found itself unable to put either team away and fell short in the last seconds.
The bottom line is this: Duke is well-coached but poorly-led on the court. Nolan Smith can score the ball, and Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins can shoot the lights out of the Greensboro Coliseum. Miles and Mason Plumlee can rake in rebounds and bang down low with anyone the ACC has to offer. But put Duke behind early and keep the foot on the gas, and they often lack the on-court poise to right the ship before the buzzer sounds.
Force Nolan Smith To Score
Nolan Smith’s instincts are those of a scorer, not a passer. His season numbers: 21.6 PPG, 5.2 APG. His numbers in Duke’s four losses: 24.8 PPG, 3.5 APG. The difference is not enormous, but it’s emblematic of a trend in Duke’s losses. When Nolan Smith is forced to carry the scoring load, many of his teammates—especially the Plumlee brothers, who rely on Smith for easy buckets—disappear.
To clarify, I am not blaming Smith for his teammates’ disappearance or for his ability to carry Duke during offensive droughts. But in games where Smith takes over, getting the ball to the hoop and scoring it himself, his teammates tend to treat the basketball like an active grenade. It’s more common to find a Plumlee at the top of the key, running the dribble-handoff or pick-and-don’t-roll with Smith.
Guess how many points the Plumlee brothers and Ryan Kelly have combined to score in Duke’s four losses. I’ll even give you a hint (albeit a purposely misleading one): Their combined per-game averages would project the three to combine for 72 points in four games.
Got a number in mind? Go lower. The Disappearing Brothers and Ghost Kelly have amassed all of 39 total points in Duke’s losses, or seven more than Nolan Smith scored himself in the loss to St. John’s. Again, it’s hard to blame Smith; while he is the leader of the team, his teammates simply must do a better job staying engaged when Smith carries the scoring load and focuses less on distributing.
But for my money, and you can ask Roy Williams or Steve Lavin if they agree, put your best perimeter defender on Smith, force him to score tough shots, and don’t let Duke’s supporting players become involved. Duke can’t survive with only one or two players contributing, and Smith's point guard skills are not strong enough for him to dictate the defense (Is it cruel to mention Kyrie Irving here?).