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How Duke Defused Miami’s Chris Lykes

Tre Jones was the lead, but he wasn’t the only one who bothered Lykes.

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Miami v Duke
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 02: Chris Lykes #0 of the Miami Hurricanes drives against Javin DeLaurier #12 of the Duke Blue Devils during the first half of their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 02, 2019 in Durham, North Carolina.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The (Blue) Devil’s In the Details: Duke shows it has more tools than just Tre Jones to shut down a star guard

It’s hard to find a lot to glean from a 30 point victory against a team that is clearly outmatched (Miami has been decimated by injuries and suspensions, leaving them with only seven scholarship players). The headlines from Duke’s 87-57 win over the Hurricanes on Saturday have largely revolved around Jack White breaking his shooting slump, RJ Barrett’s dominance, and Tre Jones’ stellar defense on Chris Lykes.

Jones’ defense on Lykes was indeed up to the high standard Duke fans have come to expect, and it was clear the Blue Devils were keying on Lykes. The unique, 5-foot-7 sophomore leads the Hurricanes with 16.5 ppg (no one else on the team averages more than 12), and he plays more than 34 minutes per game. But early in Saturday’s contest, Duke instituted an unusual wrinkle to shut down Lykes: a 2-3 zone.

The Blue Devils have trotted out the zone periodically throughout the year, most notably during the comeback at Louisville. It was also a key part of team’s gameplan down the stretch last season given the defensive limitations of an old-school two-big lineup. But it seemed odd, initially, to see Duke use a zone against a guard-dominated team that shoots a respectable 34% from beyond the arc. Given the clear mismatch that this game was, it also may have seemed unusual for Duke to add in unnecessary wrinkles against a team that it should beat handily.

But the 2-3 zone worked brilliantly, and played a key role in Duke holding Miami to 19 points in the first half, including an 0-for-8 performance from Lykes. How? Given Lykes physical limitations, Duke decided that they were willing to let him penetrate, but the 2-3 zone ensured that there was always a player a foot taller than Lykes waiting at the rim. Even with the stellar Jones matched up against Lykes, a spread offense and a pick and roll with center Ebuka Izundu was likely Miami’s ideal outcome on offense, as Lykes could find himself in the paint with just Jones. Instead, any penetration by Lykes was met by multiple shot blockers. Lykes is talented enough to occasionally use his quickness to get a shot around one taller defender. Asking him to do it amongst the trees is much too tall an order (pun intended).

This height differential had a secondary effect as well: Lykes, who averages more than three assists per game, only had one in the first half. Lykes can draw help defenders, and make them pay for it with a penetrate and kick, against a man-to-man defense. Against a collapsing zone, not only is it much more difficult for a diminutive guard to find a passing lane, but the help defenders aren’t coming off of shooters, but are usually waiting in the paint.

Duke only played this defense for a handful of possessions, but it’s clear that Coach K views this as a viable defensive tool going forward. This could prove pivotal in March if Duke finds itself matched up against, say, Marquette and their 5-foot-11 dynamo Markus Howard. Periodically switching to the zone would ensure Howard has to finish at the rim through multiple shot blockers, while also giving Jones some defensive respite. Don’t be surprised to see this pulled out of Coach K’s bag of tricks periodically in March.

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