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Duke’s Improvement: What’s Behind It?

A lot of smart adjustments to this team’s strengths and weaknesses is the answer.

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NCAA Basketball: Louisville at Duke
 Feb 21, 2018; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Grayson Allen(3) congratulates forward Javin DeLaurier (12) after a dunk during the first half against the Louisville Cardinals at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Duke’s performance against Louisville was notable in a lot of ways. We didn’t think Duke could build a 29 point lead on the Cardinals but at 72-43 they had it.

And Duke didn’t do it by simply overpowering a team offensively as they did earlier in the year. A lot of this was defense.

Duke’s switch to a zone has paid off. It’s not a strict 2-3 though. At Clemson Duke switched to a 3-2 to attack Clemson’s superior three-point shooting and has run some matchup as well.

Louisville hit just 35.9% overall and was limited to 5-20 from outside. It’s worth remembering here that Coach K came to Duke with a strong dislike of the zone that with a different A.D. could have gotten him fired. Tom Butters believed in Krzyzewski though and was willing to deal with the growing pains of a young coach and program.

He softened on zone defense over the years and during his time with USA Basketball picked Jim Boeheim’s brain about zones.

Duke’s zone is not a passive defense and one of the most pleasant surprises has been the sudden ballhawking demonstrated by Trevon Duval.

From January 6th through the Virginia Tech game on February 14th, Duval had 10 steals.

He’s had nine in the last two games. For all the (justified) talk of how Grayson Allen has benefited from moving to the point, the adjustments for Duval have been equally revelatory. There’s no reason why a guy with his ability shouldn’t be a lock down defender.

Duke’s startling improvement goes beyond that though.

Louisville did a solid job on Gary Trent who shot just 3-8 and 1-4 from deep. Louisville defended him very well.

Didn’t matter.

Between Allen and Wendell Carter Duke got 46 points, which puts those two guys just 10 points behind Louisville’s total.

Carter has really come on. He’s playing with confidence and showing aspects of his game that are really exciting. You don’t see a 6-10 guy too often who can maneuver inside, rebound, pass, hit a three and block shots. And he brings power.

Even so at times he’s been stymied, either by fouls or opponents as we saw at Clemson: the Tigers sharply limited Carter in the first half and held him to 4-14 from the floor for 15 hard-earned points, six of them from the line. Wake Forest held him to 3-9 and 15 too with seven of those coming from the line.

But another key factor for Duke is that Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier are healthy. After Marvin Bagley hurt his knee against UNC Bolden initially took his spot as Duke continued to go with two big men.

DeLaurier is a big guy too - 6-10 and 231. He’s not a polished player yet but his athleticism is at times breathtaking. He runs like very few big men can run and he can jump too. He reminds us of former Notre Dame great Alonzo Woolridge. He’s more of a big man than former Tar Heel legend James Worthy who at 6-9 had guard skills but we’re not sure Worthy was much faster.

DeLaurier underscored his raw talent on several occasions against Louisville but we’ll focus on just three: his back-to-back dunks on rebounds and a second-half block that was something to behold.

A Louisville player took the ball away from DeLaurier and raced downcourt. He sized it up quickly, took off after the dribbler and caught him at the other end. The shot went up and DeLaurier zoomed in and, with immaculate timing, rose up and blocked the shot away.

The block was beautiful but keep in mind the main point: that a 6-10 guy chased down a guard in the open court to record that block. It was something special.

For his part, Bolden, who is playing with a broken nose incidentally, has shown not just a power game inside but also some serious smarts. He’s made outstanding passes and has secured the basket defensively. Between Carter, Bolden and DeLaurier, scoring inside against Duke has gotten much, much tougher.

Jack White and Alex O’ Connell, whose minutes have more or less flipped with the recent evolution of the team, have both proven that they don’t hurt Duke when they come in and in fact tend to help. White by the way is showing that he can rebound, defend, has a power game inside and can hit threes.

This leads us back to Bagley: what happens when he comes back?

First, let’s end this nonsense about Duke being better without Bagley. You could reasonably argue that Duke is better defensively without Bagley but overall?

No way.

Early in the year Duke was a dominant rebounding team and was just killing it on the offensive boards. Against Georgia Tech, Duke had 14 offensive boards and won the boards overall 44-39.

Against smallish Virginia Tech, Duke had 11/36 to Tech’s 3/19.

But against Clemson Duke had 8/37 to Clemson’s 12/39 and against Louisville, a weak rebounding team, Duke finished with 12/44 to Louisville’s 10/30.

Keep in mind that Georgia Tech is having a challenging year and Virginia Tech has one guy over 6-6. There’s no particular reason why Louisville should be a bad rebounding team but they are.

No, the one to look at here is Clemson.

The Tigers seriously bothered Carter and despite being a smaller team themselves outrebounded Duke and if you’ll remember, that game was very tight until late and was in fact tied 57-57 with 1:31 left.

Now imagine that game in March.

The fact is the tournament is a total crapshoot and the single most important thing is having the ball in your hands. Well, Bagley gets the ball better than any player in the country. Duke could have easily lost at Clemson but if Bagley had played, the Devils would have dominated inside. Certainly you can’t double-team Carter when Bagley is on the court.

Our guess is that when he’s ready he’ll come off the bench initially and work his way back into the rotation.

He’s also surely been watching what his teammates are doing and learning. And if his defense is a particular problem in a particular game, so what? Bolden, DeLaurier and White have proven to be solid defenders. Duke has a lot of options.

Essentially, Duke has developed into a juggernaut without its best player. Adding him back in could be tricky but it could also make Duke nearly impossible to deal with.

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