The last game of the 2009 season for the Blue Devils was a wake up call.
And by wake up call, I mean chasing ephedrine-laced diet pills with a Red bull, and then sipping on a tall latte. Being bounced by 23 in the NCAA tournament by Villanova’s band of merry guards will do that to you.
In that game, Coach K was taking careful notes while the Villanova guards took turns blowing by Duke’s traditional pressure game for easy looks at the bucket. The problem wasn’t the defensive scheme that had been so successful for the program for the last 20 years.
The problem was the players didn’t fit that scheme.
The personnel group for 2010 would be even less of fit with the departure of quick guard Elliot Williams and athletic wing Gerald Henderson.
Fast forward to today and the Devils are now the odds on favorite to win the ACC in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year for the program. But a lot of that rebuilding was done in the offseason with a big scheme change on defense designed to better match the personnel group Coach K has on campus.
After last season, the Dukies had to come to the realization that their classic all out perimeter pressure defense designed to smother the ball and deny the wings probably wasn’t the best fit for their slower, oversized guards and undersized frontcourt.
The Blue Devil Staff understood, with a little help from ‘Nova, that there was no Bobby Hurley tip of the spear type on-ball pressure guy on this club. Instead they had Nolan Smith and John Scheyer. A long, but not overly quick backcourt.
There weren’t any freakishly athletic wings like Grant Hill to get into passing lanes for steals and dunks off the ball pressure. Duke had hybrid four Kyle Singler and a physical rebounding guy Lance Thomas.
In the paint, the Devils lacked back-line shot blocking erasers like Antonio Lang or Cherokee Parks to send back dribble penetrators that leaked through. Instead Coach K was going to roll with the Plumlee brothers and Brian Zoubek. Solid bigs but not erasers to whom you should be funneling ballhandlers.
So what changed?
The Hall of Fame coach decided to ratchet down the ball pressure and give more cushion to dribblers. The wing pressure was softened, making dribble penetration help from the wings more feasible, while the similarly sized players allowed the Devils to incorporate more switching.
At the end of the day, the goal was to help maintain a perimeter defensive “shell” which would give slower guards a better opportunity to stay in front of ballhandlers while the undersized frontcourt, with less penetration help responsibilities, had better position inside to execute block out assignments and rebound.
The results have been a stunning success. Duke is currently ranked 23rd in the nation in Ken Pomeroy’s pace adjusted defense, which is huge for an offensive squad like Duke that has three of the conference’s premier scorers.
With a month or so to go in the regular season, Duke is likely to win another conference title. And they’ve done it by essentially changing their defensive philosophy in a matter of months.
News flash: That Krzyzewski guy is pretty good.
This article was written by Kevin Berger of March To March
Follow Kevin on Twitter: @MarchToMarch