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2019 NCAA Tournament: Coach K’s Been Under The Hood Again

Has he installed a new spark plug?

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North Dakota State v Duke
 COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA - MARCH 22: Vinnie Shahid #0 of the North Dakota State Bison is defended by Jordan Goldwire #14 of the Duke Blue Devils in the first half during the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Colonial Life Arena on March 22, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Duke fans remember a lot about the 2015 National Championship run. They remember Jahil Okafor’s fanciful footwork in the post, Quinn Cook’s senior leadership, and how Tyus “Stones” earned his nickname. What often is forgotten is the fact that, with just four games left in the regular season, Coach K made a significant change to a starting lineup that had lost only two games when healthy: Krzyzewski inserted sophomore Matt Jones into the starting five in place of junior Amile Jefferson. Jones served primarily as a defensive specialist on the perimeter, but his presence allowed Justice Winslow to play as a stretch-4, creating offensive mismatches that Winslow exploited throughout March. Then, when Duke needed to “play big”, Jefferson was available to come off the bench to give the Blue Devils a more traditional lineup.

In contrast, I doubt in the long run Duke fans will remember much from Friday night’s first round victory over North Dakota State. But there were further signs of a development that could be key to the Blue Devils’ championship hopes: the possibility that Jordan Goldwire could become Matt Jones 2.0.

Now, some major caveats are required before presenting this theory. Goldwire is nowhere near as talented as Jones: Jones was a consensus Top-50 player in his class, while Goldwire just cracked the Top-50 point guards in his. Jones was also a superior shooter to Goldwire, even in his sophomore season: Jones made more than 37% of his threes in his sophomore year, while Goldwire made just his second three-point basket of the season last night. I also doubt that Goldwire is going to crack the starting lineup at any point during the NCAA Tournament this year.

Nevertheless, over the past few weeks, including last night, Goldwire has provided Duke with two of the same keys that Jones did: a versatile defensive specialist and the ability to present different, unique looks to the opposition. On back-to-back nights in the ACC tournament, Goldwire was called upon to shut down the opponent’s hottest hand: Syracuse’s Buddy Boeheim and North Carolina’s Cam Johnson.

Goldwire performed both tasks with aplomb, while showing that he can guard a variety of positions: Boeheim is listed at 6-foot-5, Johnson at 6-foot-9, and the 6-foot-2 Goldwire was able to successfully defend both. Meanwhile, against a team with more traditional, smaller guards, Goldwire has shown that a backcourt of himself and Tre Jones is able to wreck havoc with defensive pressure.

That backcourt of Jones and Goldwire also provides Duke with new lineup options that are more difficult for an opposition to gameplan against, much like Jones’ emergence did in 2015. With Marques Bolden healthy (and Bolden appeared near 100%, albeit rusty, in last night’s game), the consensus is that the Blue Devils’ most dangerous and talented lineup is made up of Bolden alongside the four stellar freshmen. That lineup provides a unique challenge to prepare for, as opponents must be able to defend Bolden’s 6-foot-10 frame and finishing ability at the rim while also putting additional size on the floor to slow down Zion OMG Williamson.

But swapping Goldwire for Bolden completely changes the challenge for an opposing defense. While Goldwire’s offensive limitations are well documented, he’s shown an ability to penetrate against defenders sagging off of his poor perimeter shot, leading to the occasional successful floater or at minimum additional ball rotation as a result of help defense. Meanwhile, the opposition is left with Williamson as the de-facto 5, and Cam Reddish (who people often forget stands 6-foot-8 himself) as a de-facto stretch-4. If a center previously guarding Bolden is left in the game, Williamson has shown himself more than capable of driving against such slower defenders and getting them into foul trouble. If the opposition substitutes to match Duke, it’s likely the Blue Devils will have a height and rebounding advantage at each of Williamson, Reddish, and RJ Barrett’s positions, a completely different challenge than that presented in these other scenarios.

It’s also worth noting that the lineups Duke can present with Goldwire on the court are unique from those with Jack White, who for most of the season served as Duke’s sixth man, in his place. White is himself a good, and at times spectacular, defender, particularly around the rim, but he lacks the speed of Goldwire. Indeed, while Goldwire has shown he can guard a variety of perimeter players, White is best suited to matching up against players of similar stature, and has struggled against matchups outside of his comfort zone (Luke Maye provides the best example of this scenario). While White is a superior rebounder, he doesn’t provide the ability to pressure the opposition’s ballhandlers like Goldwire. White will surely get his minutes when his hamstring is at 100%, particularly against bigger teams in which rebounding is more of a concern, but Goldwire still provides a unique option from Duke’s other primary perimeter option off the bench.

Now, it bears repeating that there are a plethora of major differences between the games of Matt Jones and Jordan Goldwire, not to mention the fact that it’s unlikely Goldwire will find his way into the starting lineup this tournament like Jones did in 2015. Nonetheless, Goldwire’s defensive versatility presents Duke with many of the same weapons that Jones did, and will make it near-impossible for opposing coaches to gameplan for each of the vastly different lineups that the Blue Devils can utilize. Goldwire played more than half the game against the Bison last night, and Duke fans should not be surprised if he continues to be a super-sub for the rest of the tournament.

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