Duke Needs To Play Defense

Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski is looking to accomplish what Nick Saban pulled off and Bill Belichick narrowly missed on—to win his sixth championship ring. With a loaded freshman class, the Blue Devils were ranked #1 in the country to start the season. But with the year’s biggest games immediately ahead of them, Duke is struggling, at least by the standards of a championship contender and they hit what one would presume to be rock-bottom in an 81-77 loss at woeful St. John’s on Saturday.

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Coach K, like Saban and Belichick, built his reputation and resume as a defensive mastermind. But this year’s Duke team is not getting it done on the defensive end. They rank 72nd in the country in defensive efficiency (a stat that adjusts for pace of play, so teams like Duke that play at a faster-than-normal tempo aren’t hurt by it). In three of their four losses, the Blue Devils have given up 80-plus points and those were to Boston College, N.C. State and St. John’s.

The one loss in which Duke didn’t give up at least eighty was no less alarming. They lost a marquee game eleven days ago at home to Virginia, 65-63. UVA is an excellent team, but no one mistakes them for an offensive juggernaut. Virginia is the opposite of Duke—they aren’t loaded with big-name recruits or NBA lottery picks, but they get it done on the defensive end and to allow 65 points to the Cavs is to virtually guarantee defeat.

What’s more, to watch Duke play against Virginia was just as alarming. I was struck by how often UVA simply set up isolations in the half-court offense and went one-on-one to the rim. It’s one thing if an experienced team beats a youthful group of freshman with exceptional ball movement and screening. It’s quite another if they just beat them off the dribble. That’s what happened all to often to the Blue Devils against the Cavs and it’s why Duke now trails UVA by three games in the race for the ACC regular season title.

There’s still reason to expect Duke to turn it around. Four of their starters are freshman, as Krzyzewski continues to morph his program into an imitation of Kentucky’s .Defense is often a function of effort and priority and good coaches have a way of turning stuff like this around in time for the season’s most important games.

Duke still has the best player in the country in Marvin Bagley. The 6’11” freshman averages 21 points/11 rebounds per game, and with his long wingspan can be the kind of rim protector that serves as the foundation for an improved defense. And with due apologies to Oklahoma’s dynamic point guard Trae Young, any NBA team that doesn’t take Bagley with the first pick in the draft next June, is insane.

The Blue Devil resume has its strengths. They’re still 19-4, they’re still projected for a 2-seed by ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi and they’ve got high-quality wins over Florida and Michigan State. This post is less a prediction of certain doom and more an alert to keep a close eye on the Dookies in the stretch of games that starts tomorrow.

Duke visits North Carolina, one of two remaining games against the Tar Heels. The Blue Devils still have two games with likely NCAA Tournament team Virginia Tech. Duke still plays ACC contenders Clemson, Louisville and Syracuse. The conference tournament still looms beyond that. If any of us are going to pick Coach K with confidence in our tournament brackets, now is the time to see if these freshman can learn to slap the floor in classic Duke fashion and D it up.