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Devils Ready For Miami Slowdown?

Duke visits a Miami team revitalized by a slow offense and a matchup zone.

 Jabari Parker #1 of the Duke Blue Devils dunks over Jordan Vandenberg #14 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 18, 2014 in Durham, North Carolina
Jabari Parker #1 of the Duke Blue Devils dunks over Jordan Vandenberg #14 of the North Carolina State Wolfpack during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on January 18, 2014 in Durham, North Carolina
Grant Halverson

It's amazing the difference a week can make.

On Sunday, Jan. 12, the Duke basketball team appeared to be in serious trouble. Coming off a late collapse at Clemson, the Blue Devils were 1-2 and close to dropping out of the top 25. The defense was erratic, freshman superstar Jabari Parker was in a slump and coach Mike Krzyzewski seemed discouraged, admitting "We're not a very good basketball team right now."

Seven days later, Duke was back on the top of the basketball world - or at least headed there. A dramatic victory over a very good Virginia team and a blowout of an up-and-down N.C. State team had the Devils climbing in the polls and the ACC standings, but more importantly looking like a national title contender again.

Now comes the next step in Duke's recovery. The Blue Devils must take their show on the road and win tonight at Miami.

And that's just a preview of the toughest test Duke will face this regular season: next week's back-to-back road games at Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

We'll find out if Duke is "in the zone" by seeing how well they play against the zone.

When Mike Krzyzewski arrived in the ACC in the spring of 1980, there was a lot of zone played in the ACC. I knew that as a disciple of Bob Knight, Krzyzewski wanted to play man-to-man defense. I called a friend who was an assistant coach at an Eastern school and asked him about the unknown new Duke coach. He told me a lot of things, but one thing I remember was his prediction that "either Krzyzewski will crash and burn with his man-to-man, or he'll change the way the ACC plays defense."

Well, Krzyzewski didn't crash and burn. Over the last 30-plus years he's imposed his defensive philosophy on the rest of the ACC. In recent years, few ACC team have played zone, at least not as a base defense for any extended periods. There are different variations of the man-to-man - Dick Bennett's "Pack Line" defense has been popular in the league, even before the arrival of his son, Tony Bennett - but for the last two decades at least, man-to-man has been the ACC defense of choice.

That's changed this season.

There are, I think, two reasons. One is the arrival of Syracuse into the league. Orange coach Jim Boeheim, the nation's premier guru of zone defenses. The other factor is the new NCAA rules about hand-checking that have made it much more difficult to contain cutters and drivers with a man-to-man set.

"More people are playing it," Krzyzewski said Monday. "In the non-conference season, we've faced more zone than in any other full season since I've coached here. Then when we started playing conference, we started with some man-to-man teams and I thought we weren't as sharp against a man-to-man.

"I think there are just more people playing zone."

One of them is Miami coach Jim Larranaga.

"Last year, we didn't play zone more than 20 minutes all season," he said. "This year, we decided to implement a zone when our man-to-man was not as good. We thought we'd try a matchup zone and develop confidence in it."

Early this season when Miami was trying to play man-to-man and even later, when the 'Canes were starting to experiment with the zone, Larranaga's team struggled.

That was not surprising. Miami lost its top six players off last year's ACC championship team. His top returning player -senior wing Rion Brown averaged 6.4 points in just 22 minutes a game. Larranaga added a fifth-year senior transfer from DePaul, but Donnavan Kirk was no great shakes there, averaging 6.2 points and 3.9 rebounds for an 11-21 team. He also added fifth-year senior Garrius Adams, an athletic wing who missed last season with an injury. But he averaged 3.8 points when he last played in 2012.

So there was no real surprise when the 'Canes ended the 2013 portion of their 2013-14 season with an 8-5 record that included home losses to St. Francis and to Virginia Tech (in an early ACC game). It looked like Miami would vie with Virginia Tech and slumping Boston College as the ACC's worst team.

That's when Miami went to Syracuse and unleashed Larranaga's matchup zone against the Orange. The combination of the zone and the deliberate slow tempo gave the nation's No. 2 ranked team fits. The Carrier Done crowd was stunned as lightweight Miami led the mighty Orange the entire game. Syracuse didn't take the lead until a C.J. Fair jumper with four minutes left helped the home team prevail 49-44.

"They had a real solid matchup zone and we couldn't really get anything going," Fair told reporters after the game. "They got good shots working the shot clock down and made us work on defense. It's tough playing defense that long."

Miami followed the near-miss at Syracuse with a stunning 57-45 victory in the Smith Center against North Carolina. Florida State did go to Miami and win, but the 'Canes bounced back to beat Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

Syracuse's Boeheim suggested earlier this week that Miami is now playing the best defense in the ACC.

"They'll give everybody trouble," he said. "Since they switched to that matchup, they could have beaten almost everybody they played. I think Miami is as good defensively - or better - than anybody in our league."

He also cited the difficulty in coping with Miami's slow tempo. According to Ken Pomeroy's metrics, Miami plays the slowest tempo in all of college basketball.

Larranaga didn't apologize for that.

"It's a function of who we are offensively," he said. "We're not a high octane offense. Last year, our goal was to get to 75 points. But that's when I had five guys averaging double figures. So far this year, I have one averaging double figures. To compete in the ACC, we have to be patient and force our opponents to work on defense."

That's something that Krzyzewski will try to counter with his two-platoon system, which is basically designed to keep fresh defenders on the court.

But Boeheim warned his friend that it's not easy to speed the 'Canes up.

"Miami is so good defensively, that you have to play slow against them," he said. "If you can't get turnovers and get runouts, that's the only way to force tempo, but that's hard to do. You can't speed them up."

Clearly, Miami will be a tougher road test than the 'Canes looked to be two weeks ago. But the experience of facing Larranaga's zone - combined with all the early season experience with zone defenses - should help Duke prepare for the ultimate zone test - Feb. 1 when the Devils invade Syracuse.


How much better is Duke today than the Devils were after the Clemson game?

The answer to that question depends on some degree upon how good you think the two teams Duke beat last week are.

In many ways, Virginia is like Miami in that the Cavs were a disappointing team through the New Year. Unlike Miami, Virginia's struggles weren't expected. Tony Bennett returned a deep, experienced team and should have done better than 9-4 in the non-conference part of the schedule. When Virginia ended the old year with a 35-point loss at so-so Tennessee, the outlook wasn't brilliant.

But as Duke fans should understand, things change … and often change quickly.

Virginia opened ACC play with an impressive 62-50 win at Florida State (which was itself playing well) and has been one of the best teams in the ACC in January. The Cavs have five ACC wins - all by double figures.

In that context, Duke's 69-65 victory in Cameron does look impressive, despite the near collapse in the final minutes. Duke did control most of the game (leading all the way, often by double digits) and when the outcome was in doubt, Duke made the winning plays.

More importantly, two Duke sophomores made the winning plays. Amile Jefferson and Rasheed Sulaimon dominated the endgame. Both had season-best performances - a good sign for the Devils going forward.

Overall, Duke scored 13 points more than Virginia normally gives up; shot more than six points better than Virginia normally allows and committed two less turnovers than UVa's average opponent.

With the exception of a brief two-minute lapse late in the game, it was an impressive performance - coming just 48 hours after the lackluster game at Clemson.

Of course, there was that late lapse - when Duke went from an 11-point lead to a one-point deficit in barely two minutes - that must be evaluated as a major concern. It was a continuation of a pattern - Duke has had the lead deep into the second half in all four of its losses, but has folded down the stretch in each.

This time Duke managed to recover, but the late slide was still there.

That was one of the best things about the N.C. State win Saturday. There was no letup. Duke built a lead, then built on that margin, turning the game into a rout.

But what to make of the opposition?

I heard that Seth Davis of CBS Sports dismissed the lopsided win because (in his words) "State stinks." On the DBR message boards, there is a debate about whether N.C. State is a "bad" team or not.

The problem is that there is no clear definition of "bad" in this context. Certainly State looked bad against Duke … and a week earlier in a loss to Virginia. But how bad did State look in a victory at Notre Dame (days after the Irish beat Duke)? What about their dominant win at Tennessee (two weeks before the Vols killed Virginia)?

How bad did N.C. State look Monday night, playing without its best player T.J. Warren, when the Pack rallied from a nine-point halftime deficit to beat Maryland? If the 21 turnovers State suffered against Duke were the result of the Pack's ineptitude, then why did State commit just eight turnovers in the victory over Maryland?

I guess my point is that Davis is free to apply the term "stinks" to State and message board posters can call them "bad"-but as of this morning, N.C. State is No. 67 in the RPI - if they stink, then more than 75 percent of all Division 1 teams stink.

That's an awful harsh measure.

I'd prefer to think that State is an erratic young team that Duke made to look bad with the best defensive I've seen this Blue Devil team play.

Allow me to cite two more positives from the State win:

(1) Jabari Parker appeared to snap out of his recent slump.

After topping 20 points 10 times in his first 12 games (with 19 and 15 in the other two), the freshman forward endured a stretch of five games in which he shot poorly and averaged just 10.8 points and even missed double figures twice.

He bounced back with a 23-point performance against the Wolfpack and looked like the superstar he appeared to be in December.

(2) Both Jefferson and Sulaimon recovered from tough first halves and played very well in the second half to follow up their breakout performances against Virginia.

I believe it was important that the two young standouts build on their starring performances against Virginia. But in the first half against State, both regressed - Jefferson had two points and four rebounds in 13 minutes as Duke was outrebounded 23-15; Sulaimon had two points, two assists and two turnovers in a lackluster seven minutes.

It was dramatically different after the break.

Jefferson had seven points (2-of-2 from the field and 3-of-3 from the foul line) and four rebounds in 11 minutes as Duke dominated the boards with a 20-9 advantage in the second half.

One note about Jefferson's free throw shooting. When he stepped to the foul line in the final seconds against Virginia with the game on the line, he was shooting exactly 40 percent from the foul line for the season - 18 of 45. He knocked down both shots to clinch the Cavalier win, then hit all three of his attempts against State. That's five in a row from the line - which is not to say he's suddenly become Redick or Scheyer from the stripe, but it's a good sign going forward.

If anything, Sulaimon's second half against State was even more dramatic. In 10 minutes of play, he had 11 points, four assists and no turnovers. When Duke went to the spread midway through the half, he dominated the game.

"Rasheed kind of couldn't be guarded there for about five minutes," Krzyzewski said. "We had a big lead but we scored every time because of how he handled the open set that we had."

The Duke coach pointed out how important it was for his offensive weapons to develop some consistency. He has explosive offensive players in Parker, Rodney Hood, Sulaimon, Andre Dawkins and even Quinn Cook.

The problem, he said, has been that Hood has been the closest thing to a consistent force.

That needs to change going forward.

Duke had a great week last week - all things considered, almost a perfect week. But these Devils are a long way from a finished product. Is Parker back to being the consistent player he was in December? Has Sulaimon shaken his early season blues and become the player we expected him to be? Is Jefferson getting comfortable as an ACC post player - and will his solid free throw shooting continue?

Most of all, is the defensive improvement that seemed to come from Krzyzewski's two-platoon approach for real? Will it continue?

Stay turned - we know how quickly things change in the ACC. This week will give us a good idea whether Duke is really surging or merely had a nice week at home,


I was looking at the ACC standings Tuesday morning and I realized that the league is starting to take shape after the vagaries of the early season schedule.

Get a copy of the standings and draw a line under Florida State in the rankings.

I think that at least five of the six teams above that line will finish in the top six and will make the NCAA Tournament.

The one team I'm not sure about is Clemson. The Tigers (13-4, 4-1 ACC going into Tuesday night's game at Pitt, 13-5 and 4-2 with a 33 point loss coming out) have played well in conference play. That not only have the big home win over Duke, but they have gone on the road and beaten Boston College and Virginia Tech.

If the NCAA selection were today, they'd have to be in. But I confess to a lack of faith in the Tigers. Their non-conference resume is undistinguished and last night they started a stretch of five ACC road games in their next six outings - at Pitt, at UNC, at FSU, at Syracuse and at Notre Dame.

If they can steal even a couple of wins during that murderer's row (they do have a home game with Wake in the middle of it), I'll change my mind. But right now, I expect the Tigers to finish close to .500 in the ACC - and that won't get them in the NCAA field.

Still, Clemson has to be given a better chance than the majority of the nine teams below the line we drew on the ACC standings. Most of those teams are - barring a miraculous turnaround - already out of contention.

I'd like to think Notre Dame was an exception, but I don't see it. The Irish were 11-7 (2-3 ACC) going into Tuesday night's game at Florida State (Florida State won). They have quality wins over Duke at home and Indiana on a neutral court. They also have homecourt losses to Indiana State and North Dakota State.

Mike Brey's team will have to play much, MUCH better to make an NCAA run - and without Jerian Grant, it's hard to see that happening.

The one below-the-line team that does have a real chance at an NCAA run is North Carolina. It's not that their record is any more impressive that the rest of the bottom feeders (11-7, 1-4 ACC), but the Tar Heels have three marquee wins that give them a chance to slip in the field with a mediocre overall record.

UNC has some embarrassing losses too. It's a funny thing, but if UNC was 11-7 with losses to Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky, but with wins over Belmont, UAB and Texas, Carolina would be in as bad a shape as Notre Dame or Maryland.

But they do have those three wins and that gives them a chance - as long as they improve their ACC record just a bit. UNC reminds me of the 2007 Duke team. That Blue Devil team was 22-10 on Selection Sunday with an 8-8 ACC record and a first-round ACC Tournament loss. But Duke also had wins over Georgetown and George Mason (which would both play in the 2007 Final Four), plus Indiana, Gonzaga and Temple.

If UNC can finish 9-9 in the ACC, the Tar Heels would be 19-12 going into the ACC Tournament. That would get them into the NCAA conversation.