clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Duke Zoned Out? Maybe, Maybe Not

Duke has five days off before they play against Sunday in Madison Square Garden against St. John's. It will be interesting to see if Duke deploys the zone again or if with five days to patch up the man-to-man, Coach K will return to his favored defense. The Johnnies are strong defensively and good athletically, but are a poor shooting team (similar to Louisville in that regard).

Jan 19, 2015; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Justise Winslow (12) gets his hand on the ball as Pittsburgh Panthers guard James Robinson (0) tries to shoot in their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Jan 19, 2015; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Justise Winslow (12) gets his hand on the ball as Pittsburgh Panthers guard James Robinson (0) tries to shoot in their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Two weeks ago, I wrote a column for DBR suggesting the ACC was unusually volatile this season.

I was right - the league has continued to throw up surprise after surprise. Since I wrote that piece, we've seen Clemson stun Pitt at Pitt, knock off Syracuse in Littlejohn … followed by a visit from reeling Florida State, which broke a three-game losing streak against the seemingly surging Tigers on their home floor. Georgia Tech has continued to take much better teams to the wire - and lose. N.C. State upset Duke in Raleigh and Miami won - easily - in Durham, sending the Blue Devils into a shocking two-game losing streak.

A week ago, I wrote about that tailspin, suggesting that it was too early to panic and pointing out that Coach K has long had the knack of fixing such midseason problems - often by unusual and surprising methods.

I was right - K made a dramatic defensive change and - voila! - Duke beats Louisville at Louisville and Pitt in Cameron to regain at least a measure of its confidence and swagger.

But in that column last week, I emphatically predicted that the one adjustment K would not make was to go to the zone.

I was wrong - spectacularly wrong. The switch to the 2-3 zone was the "unusual (for Coach K) and surprising" tweak that at least temporarily fixed Duke's defensive problem.

My previous opinion was based on a conversation with K himself, back in the late 1980s. In those days, K would allow the local beat writers an afternoon during the summer to come in and talk to him one-on-one about any subject. Krzyzewski was always open and frank. It was during one of these summer meetings that he told me that as much as he loved college coaching, he had a nagging itch to coach the best players in the world - hence, he would always be tempted by the NBA.

But the conversation I remember was about his defensive philosophy. I wondered why he was so wedded to the man-to-man defense.

Understand, that while K's Duke teams were fundamentally man teams, he did play a bit of zone in the 1980s. There is a passage in John Feinstein's first book "Season on the Brink" in which John is with Coach Bob Knight watching a Duke game (during the 1985-86 season) and complaining that his protégé is using a zone.

But K only used it situationally. Over the years, he's often used the zone for baseline out-of-bounds plays and to protect players in foul trouble. At times, he's used it near the ends of blowouts to take his team's foot off the neck of an outmatched opponent. However, the only time I can remember that he used it extensively was late in the 1982 season, when he had a hopeless team.

A year later, he brought in the players he was going to win with - Dawkins, Alarie, Henderson and Bilas - and returned to the man-to-man. That 1982-83 season was a trial as his freshman struggled to grasp the demands of K's defense. That was one of the main gripes of the so-called "Concerned Iron Dukes" - that K would not abandon his man-to-man, even when it was clearly not working. And even Krzyzewski has since admitted that he probably lost 2-3 games that season by refusing to get out of the man-to-man.

But he was laying a foundation - not only for one team, but for his program. As the Dawkins class learned to play man the way K wanted it, they became a fearsome defensive team (adding Tommy Amaker, one of the best on-the-ball defenders ever a year later helped form the team that would win 37 games in 1986). By that time, the man-to-man defensive principles were so ingrained that K could afford to throw in a little situational zone.

Be he had established that man-to-man was his base defense and would remain his base for the next three decades.

But back to that summer conversation about K's defensive philosophy.

I wanted to know why K refused to play anything other than man as his base defense. He patiently explained that his man-to-man was so flexible that he didn't need to use zone. He argued that he could play a sluffing man-to-man that was virtually indistinguishable from a zone. But by sticking to variations of the man, he could spend his practice time drilling man-to-man principles into his players. Zone required different fundamentals. He would rather play one defense very well and play multiple defenses mediocrely.

I didn't know it at the time, but a lot of this was included in a pamphlet he wrote in 1986: Duke's Team Man-to-Man Defense (if you are interested, there are a couple of copies available on Amazon, starting at $54.99).

Over the years, I've talked to K and his assistants about changes in his man-to-man. As recently as 2010, K pulled back his man-to-man pressure and played a zone-like, sagging man-to-man that protected Brian Zoubek in the middle and turned Duke into a halfcourt team. It also helped Duke surge over the last six weeks of the season and win the national championship.

Honestly, that's what I expected to happen after the Miami game. Believe me, I was shocked to see the zone - although Rick Pitino claimed that he expected it.

"I thought they would play zone," the Louisville coach said. "We very much prepared to see the zone. That's the defense to play against us."

And it certainly worked as Louisville shot a miserable 29.5 percent, including 4-of-25 on 3's.

How much of that was due to the effectiveness of Duke's zone? And how much due to the fact that Louisville is not a very good shooting team?

Well, Louisville's shooting percentage was its second lowest of the year (Kentucky held the Cards to 25.9 percent), but Louisville also shot just 31.9 against Cleveland State, and 32.7 against Clemson. Pitino claimed that the Cards missed 10 of 12 uncontested shots against Duke and were 0-for-8 on challenged shots inside.

Monday night against Pitt, Duke's new zone defense was superb in the first half … not so much in the second half.

Coach Krzyzewski suggested that the difference was that in the first half, Duke played defense in front of the Blue Devils bench and the coaches could help them out. In the second half, the defense was on the other end and the players didn't communicate as well, especially early in the half.

On the other hand, Pitt coach Jamie Dixon suggested that his players were tight early and missed a bunch of open shots. Indeed, on the Panthers' first four possessions, Pitt got open jumpers from 15-foot in - and missed them all, allowing Duke to race to a 7-0 lead.

Pitt shot 37.0 percent in the first half, including 0-for-3 on 3-pointers. It was a different story after the break as the Panthers scored 40 second-half points and shot 51.5 percent from the floor. It was really worst than that as Pitt, in desperation mode, missed its last five shots. Up to that point, they were 17 for 28 (60.7 percent), including 3 of 4 3-pointers, in the first 18 minutes of the second half.

What does that say about the effectiveness of Duke's new zone? Would it have bothered Miami or N.C. State - two very capable shooting teams - that much?

After the Pitt win, Krzyzewski was not ready to label the zone a panacea - or even to promise that it would remain Duke's primary defense.

In fact, he defended this team's ability to play man-to-man defense.

"You guys talk about breakdowns defensively - there were no breakdowns defensively against Wisconsin …against Michigan State … against Stanford … against Connecticut. We were playing great defense."

So what happened?

"Our defense started to go back when our offense -- we couldn't hit a shot. I think the missed shooting hurt us the other way.

"What I think happened is, you are out there alone, instead of being together. So in the zone, you're not as exposed. You feel like more people have your back. So, a little psychologically, it's helped.

"And we talk better."

Duke has five days off before they play against Sunday in Madison Square Garden against St. John's. It will be interesting to see if Duke deploys the zone again or if with five days to patch up the man-to-man, Coach K will return to his favored defense. The Johnnies are strong defensively and good athletically, but are a poor shooting team (similar to Louisville in that regard).

Obviously, the media focus will be on K's quest for his 1,000th win. But for the Duke coach, the game represents another step in the development of the youngest Duke team in 32 years.

"They're just trying to grow up," Krzyzewsii said. "We have to help them grow up."

The question is whether or not the zone is a phase for a growing team or the ultimate destination. I was obviously wrong about the zone once this month, but that doesn't scare me from making an idiot of myself again - I believe that by the time postseason arrives, the zone will be no more than a small part of Duke's defensive arsenal - that the Blue Devils will once again be primarily a man-of man team.


When Coach K gets to 1,000 career wins Sunday or not, he's going to get there soon.

The St. John's game is actually more important to the Duke coach for what it means to this season and this Duke team. Asked what it meant to be one win away from 1,000, Coach K responded.

"It means were 16-2. And hopefully, we can be 17-2 after the next game we play."

With 13 regular season games to go, Duke is in a precarious position. The Devils could still finish strong and win the ACC regular season title and lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Or the Devils could stumble a few more times and end up playing on Wednesday night in the ACC Tournament - in other words, without a bye into the quarterfinals.

There are parts to their resume that are very strong - does anybody else have two road wins as impressive as Duke's double-digit victories at Wisconsin and at Louisville?

Those two victories will mean a lot when the NCAA selection committee meets in March. But there will be plenty of other data in Duke's resume by then.

I was lucky enough to get a copy of the RPI Report Monday.

Now, I understand the limitations of the RPI. Like most of you, I think Pomeroy is a much better statistical model. But you have to understand, the RPI is the committee's favorite tool. For better or worse.

Don't get me wrong, it's not so much that the committee looks at the RPI and says, "Ah, Duke is No. 8 in the rankings, therefore they should be the last No. 2 seed."

The rankings don't matter as such. Where they factor in is when the committee starts looking a team's record against the top 50 and top 100 and so on. It's the RPI that determines who is in the top 50 and who is the top 100.

I had one expert tell me recently that the two most important factors in the committee's deliberation are:

-- Top 50 wins. Beyond that, top 100 and top 200. But the committee relishes and rewards those top 50 wins.

-- Non-Conference strength of schedule. Let me say, this isn't fair. Teams from the power conferences have so many tough games in conference that a team like Gonzaga or Memphis or VCU (which currently has the No. 1 NSOS) doesn't have to play. Overall strength of schedule should be a bigger factor. But representatives from the mid-major and smaller conferences have taken control of the committee in recent years and they are going to enforce their point of view - that the big guys should be forced to play the best little guys out of conference.

Hence, you never hear the committee chairman say, "It's who you played" anymore. Now it's "Who did you choose to play."

How does this impact Duke's resume? Keep in mind all the ratings I'm going to cite come from Monday morning's report and don't include Monday and Tuesday night's games:

-- Duke's non-conference strength of schedule is 37th nationally. That's not bad, but it's not a great help. Sunday's game with St. John's (No. 40) will help boost that a bit.

Duke's NSOS is much better than such powers as Villanova (82), Maryland (140) and Notre Dame (a dreadful 328). It's worse than Virginia (22), Kansas (2) and Kentucky (5). It's better than Syracuse (85) and not as good as North Carolina (12).

The point is, if Duke gets into the conversation for a No. 1 seed, the NSOS won't be a killer, but it won't help much either.

For what it's worth, Duke's overall schedule strength is 23 and will clearly be in the top 20 (probably top 15) by the time the selection committee meets.

-- As of Monday, Duke had five top 50 wins - Wisconsin (9), Stanford (26), Louisville (39), Michigan State (37) and Wofford (50).

Interesting that Stanford - not Louisville - is Duke's second highest rated RPI win. Also interesting that Wofford is hanging in the 50th spot. The Terriers could stay up there if they dominate the Southern Conference, but every loss in that weak league is going to hurt badly.

Pitt (69 as of Monday) was Duke's eighth top 100 win, along with Temple (56) and UConn (74). Pull for Temple to get hot - if the Owls move up six places, it makes Duke's resume much stronger.

Of course, Duke has a lot more chances to add top 50 and top 100 wins in the next six weeks. It starts with No. 40 St. John's and includes two games with Notre Dame (38), two games with Syracuse (57), two games with North Carolina (12) and a single game with Virginia (2). Plus, whatever teams that Devils face in the ACC Tournament.

The rest of the ACC is outside the top 100, but only Virginia Tech (231) is outside the top 200 - and that's a big improvement on the last few years.