It was an odd exchange, particularly considering we were seated in the Bill Brill Media Room, where Duke basketball press events are routinely staged.
Boston College coach Earl Grant already had come and gone, remarking on the Duke’s 16-point victory, fueled by a zone press that sped up the game and the young Blue Devils’s .528 field goal shooting.
Then Jon Scheyer came to the podium a few strides from the home team locker room.
Scheyer shared a few comments about his team getting its first ACC win of the season, not to mention of his career. “We feel like we could be a great defensive team,” he said almost off-handedly.
That observation didn’t go unchallenged.
A young man seated in the middle of the press contingent, perhaps a Duke undergrad, had a different take.
“Duke definitely is not known for their defense normally,” the interlocutor began. There was no audible gasp among the smattering of veteran reporters on hand, though surely it crossed a few minds what might have happened if Mike Krzyzewski, often hard-pressed to respond with equanimity to what he took were foolish, ill-advised remarks, had been at the podium.
Instead the even-keeled Scheyer took in the observation and did a double-take, almost shaking his head in amazement.
“Says who?” he asked. “Says you? They’re known for a lot of things. Defense has always been one of them.”
The media-ite making the statement may not be old enough to remember Duke prior to its one-and-done incarnation, in which defense is a now and again thing, the failure of players to communicate readily on the court or the experience to rotate as a unit with instinctive decisiveness. Familiarity can bring cohesion.
But defense remains a significant element in Duke’s play, a team strength in mind if not always in body. Certainly it’s been a program trademark over the years, if not preeminent of late.
To see where an observer might second-guess the Devils’s defensive prowess, we surveyed markers of the discomfort inflicted on Duke’s opponents. More sophisticated statistical spelunking might better calibrate defenses; we’ve looked for now at what Duke’s done compared to league compatriots over the last decade.
Keep in mind that between 2014 and 2022 Duke regularly commanded NCAA bids, other than 2020 when there was no tournament and 2021 when a COVID outbreak within the program thwarted a late-season rally.
Over that recent span there were eight seasons with at least 25 wins, two with 32. There was a 2015 NCAA title, a 2022 ACC first-place finish, a single finish outside the top third of the league. Only three of 10 times in the decade did the Blue Devils lose more than five ACC games in a season (2016, 2017, 2021).
In other words, Duke remained formidable, characteristically pushing opposing offenses farther from the basket, playing disruptive defense by getting into passing lanes, denying looks into the post, creating a physical tone.
And during that span, more than half the time Duke ranked among the ACC’s top five in a half-dozen key defensive stats.
Check out Duke’s field goal percentage defense since 2014, including the first dozen games of 2022-23, a stat Krzyzewski didn’t emphasize: top four in the ACC on four occasions, this year included. Three-point defense: top five in the ACC eight seasons out of 10, No.1 this season. Scoring defense: top four in each of the last two seasons and among national leaders in 2023. And more than a third of the way through this season Duke led the ACC in defensive rebounding.
Duke’s ratio of assists to turnovers: top five eight times in 10. Blocked shots: among league leaders in six recent seasons out of 10, including first in three of their last five. Steals per game: seven of 10.
|DUKE DOES PLAY DEFENSE
ACC Defensive Statistics Reflecting Duke Proficiency, Last Decade
(Rank In League Precedes Stat, Through Games Of Dec. 18, 2022)