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Zooming With Mark Williams And Joey Baker

A look at what Duke learned in Tallahassee

NCAA Basketball: Continental Tire Challenge-Duke at Gonzaga
 Nov 26, 2021; Las Vegas, Nevada, USA; Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Rasir Bolton (45) shoots between Duke Blue Devils forward Joey Baker (13) and center Mark Williams (15) during the first half at T-Mobile Arena.
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Last season we heard some variation of “we got knocked back” or “they knocked us back” with some regularity.

That wasn’t supposed to the case this season. After all Duke brought in a quartet of freshmen who go 6-10, 250; 6-6, 221; 6-4, 221 and 6-2, 208. Grad-student transfer Theo John is 6-9, 242 and looks like he’s never been knocked back a second in his life. Returnees like Mark Williams and Wendell Moore, Jr. were stronger.

No more getting knocked back.

Until last Tuesday, Nothing surprising about that.. Leonard Hamilton has put together an outstanding Florida State program largely based on physicality, depth and relentless attack; if we don’t get you sooner, we’ll get you later.

But still, it was disappointing to see Florida State successfully attack their offensive boards again and again.

“It was the most physical game we’ve been in,” Mike Krzyzewski said immediately following the game. “They knocked us back for most of the first half and right away at the beginning of the second half.”

Paolo Banchero led everyone with 12 rebounds but he didn’t get enough help. FSU out-rebounded Duke 42-37, with a 19-7 advantage in offensive rebounding and a 12-8 advantage in second-chance points. Not a lot but in a one-point overtime loss, one more defensive rebound could have been the difference between victory and defeat.

Think of that first possession of the second half, when Florida finished inside on their fifth shot, following four offensive rebounds.

Talk about getting knocked back.

Banchero’s post-game comments on the rebounding differential addressed not physicality but energy.

“They did a good job just crashing the boards hard, literally just flying in there, getting their hands on balls, getting tips and put-backs, just coming in there recklessly and getting up there for rebounds, which makes it kind of hard to box out when a player is coming full speed.”

That was right after the game. Duke has had some time to look at film, digest the game and put some of that reflection in practice.

Mark Williams addressed the media via Zoom Thursday afternoon and not surprisingly many of the questions concerned rebounding.

“Ultimately that was probably one of the driving factors in their winning that game,” Williams said. “For us it’s just important for us to gang rebound, everybody going to the glass.”

Was Duke out-toughed? Williams was ambivalent. He correctly noted that Duke was tough enough to overcome a nine-point, second-half deficit on the road against a pretty good team

“We watched film. We saw that play right out of halftime, those sort of plays, we can’t allow to happen. That can give a team momentum. Plays like that we can’t allow that to happen.”

“We gave ourselves a chance to win,” he added, “making tough shots to force overtime. I still feel like we were resilient in giving ourselves a chance to win. At the same time we shouldn’t have put ourselves in that situation in the first place.”

Williams is an elite shot blocker. But he can’t block everything and when he goes for a block and doesn’t get it, his teammates have to help out. NC State got 22 offensive rebounds against Duke a week ago and 11 of those came from Williams’ man streaking to the basket.

“If I go to block a shot, I’m not going to be able to necessarily to get that rebound. We need another wing or somebody to crash down and get that rebound if I go for that block. It can’t just be on the bigs, Guards can get rebounds as well.”

So, problem diagnosed. Just need to fix it.

Syracuse, Duke’s next opponent, is not known for crashing the offensive boards.

They are known for their signature 2-3 zone.

Joey Baker discussed what can happen when that zone isn’t properly attacked.

“The zone can make you stand up, can make you lazy, make you make plays that you wouldn’t normally make. We have to fight that urge of making hard passes, just passing it around the perimeter, not trying to get it in the paint, that sort of thing. We have to stick to our game plan, stay sharp and execute the way that we’re planning on executing.”

Of course proper execution against that zone can give open looks to shooters and Joey Baker is a shooter.

“I’d like to be ready for a couple of good looks,” Baker dead-panned.

Each of Duke’s three losses came in games that were up for grabs with 30 seconds left. A different call on a 50-50 charge/block call, a different bounce on a missed foul shot, a better close out on a 3-pointer or a different outcome on a open 3 and a possible undefeated season is the ongoing narrative.

Not possible now, of course. But Baker says Duke is working to iron out the kinks and taking the long view.

“We just didn’t make the plays we needed to make throughout the game, diving on the ground, toughness plays. That’s something we’ve addressed, that we’ve noted and we plan on improving. We’re playing really good competition and the margin for error is so small it comes down to the small things. We have such a good coaching staff. They put in tons of hours trying to address what we need to fix. We look over it as a team, watch film, talk about it, drill it in practice and get prepared to do it better.”

A zone Saturday? Maybe. Trevor Keels? Maybe. Duke is mum on this one. Better attention to the small things? To be determined. But as Baker noted it’s a long season and most of the ACC schedule lies ahead.