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Rumors of Coach K’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated

A subtle but gutsy defensive twist helped propel Duke to its biggest win of the year

NCAA Basketball: Duke at Pittsburgh
Jan 19, 2021; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski reacts on the court during the first half against the Pittsburgh Panthers at the Petersen Events Center. 
Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

As Duke floundered this season, a vocal minority of Blue Devil fans became louder and louder. Coach K didn’t make adjustments anymore, they said. The one-and-done recruiting model killed this year’s team, they said. There wasn’t a discernible game plan in our losses, they said.

To those people, I’d simply point to Duke’s victory against Virginia last night and ask: are you happy now?

There were many factors that drove the Blue Devils to their biggest win of the season: Matthew Hurt’s offensive brilliance, Jaemyn Brakefield’s play off the bench, and Wendell Moore’s ability to impact the game without scoring just to name a few. But one that might have fallen under the radar of the typical fan was an unusual, yet effective, choice Duke made when guarding ball-screens, particularly those involving Virginia’s 7-foot-1 senior center Jay Huff.

For a majority of the second half, Coach K elected to play Brakefield instead of a more traditional center like Mark Williams. More interestingly, he matched Brakefield up on Huff as opposed to the larger Hurt. And most surprisingly, when Huff set screens for point guard Kihei Clark, Coach K had his team switch on defense, even if that left Jordan Goldwire seemingly overmatched against Huff in the paint.

Yes, Huff had a fantastic game, finishing with 20 points and 12 rebounds. But few of those points came from exploiting the 11 inch heigh differential between himself and Goldwire. Indeed, the Cavaliers struggled to get Huff the ball with that mismatch. Why? Brakefield has an analogous 11 inch height advantage on the diminutive Clark, and the length and foot speed to stay with him defensively (exemplified by a couple of stellar blocks the freshman had, including a key one in the game’s waning minutes). Brakefield prevented Clark from having a passing lane to Huff, forcing him instead to rotate the ball around the perimeter. More often than not, Duke was able to switch its defense back when Clark made a curl cut through the paint, often using a Huff screen.

There were certainly plays where this mismatch was to Duke’s disadvantage and Huff was able to find easy buckets over the smaller Brakefield. But the “switch everything” defensive approach seemed to flummox the Virginia offensive attack. It certainly caught them off-guard: had this been part of the Cavalier game plan, one might’ve expected Clark to draw Brakefield out farther on the perimeter when this switch occurred to create a passing lane to the post from the corner, rather than following the offensive flow and cutting through the paint, facilitating Brakefield’s return to defending Huff.

Much was made pregame about how Florida State successfully defended Virginia’s attack earlier this week by sticking to Huff and Sam Hauser on the perimeter and forcing Clark to finish at the bucket. Coach K seemed to come to a similar conclusion, but put a distinct spin on that strategy that the Cavaliers appeared unprepared for. It was a case study in why anyone raising the prospect of Coach K’s demise seems destined to eat crow at some point.

Rich Randomness:

  • Duke seems to have found its usual end of year 7 man rotation, with Brakefield and Goldwire the main options off the bench. Interestingly, Brakefield is filling a similar role as Jalen Johnson was before his departure, allowing the Blue Devils to field two distinct lineups: a traditional one with Williams at the center and Hurt at the 4, or a small ball group with Hurt and Brakefield as the bigs. Henry Coleman and Joey Baker both fill more niche roles for this team (Baker as a shooter, Coleman as a third big and energizer bunny), and will surely see big minutes in certain games down the stretch. But once again, Coach K appears to have found his tight rotation for the end of the season.
  • On Baker: I found it very encouraging that he was surreptitiously inserted into the lineup for the final, defensive possession of the first half. Once a defensive liability, Coach K clearly trusts Baker on that end now, and he continues to show incredible effort even when he’s at an athletic disadvantage. That bodes well for his continued development, and his ability to see the court in games where his skillset will be needed (like on Monday against Syracuse’s zone).
  • I can’t recall a game when a single player, Moore, received two blows to the head with neither being called a foul. Yes, both were likely 50/50 calls, but referees tend to react (perhaps justifiably so) in favor of the injured party in those settings. Nonetheless, the way Moore reacted to those plays seemed to provide an energy boost to his team, speaking to his emerging leadership role.
  • If Hurt keeps shooting at this insane clip, it’s more likely than not that an NBA team will use a late first-round pick on him in the hopes he develops into a shooting specialist at the next level. But even if he departs, each of Duke’s remaining contributors are likely to return to Durham next year barring something unforeseen (including Goldwire, who has an extra year of eligibility given the NCAA’s COVID policy this season). That eight-man core, boosted by two top-ten caliber incoming recruits, gives Blue Devil fans reason for plenty of optimism for the 2021-22 campaign, especially if this group continues to win and develop down the stretch of this season.