No. 6 Duke escapes but has some serious defensive issues to address

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After having trouble defensively in their 83-74 win over East Carolina on Tuesday night, No. 6 Duke had their hands full with the Vermont Catamounts on Sunday evening. Thanks to a Rodney Hood free throw with five seconds remaining and Vermont not attempting a shot in time on the ensuing possession the Blue Devils escaped with a 91-90 victory. But with the amount of talent on Mike Krzyzewski’s team, with freshman Jabari Parker (26 points, nine rebounds) leading the way, beating Vermont in late-November isn’t the standard for this group.

And that’s what makes their performance on the defensive end so concerning as they prepare for a trip to New York for the NIT Season Tip-Off semifinals.

Vermont shot 64.8% from the field for the game, with Pepperdine transfer Hector Harold (24 points) and starting forward Clancy Rugg (20) leading four Catamounts in double figures. Through the use of proper spacing Vermont was able to find quality looks throughout the night, and during much of the second half Duke looked ill-equipped to get the stops needed to win the game.

Vermont finished the game with an offensive efficiency of 142.4 and an effective field goal percentage of 68.9%, but Duke won in the end because of Hood’s ability to attack the basket on the game’s deciding play and their overall ability to go “shot for shot” with the upstarts from America East. But in order for the Blue Devils to be a true national title contender they have to get better at keeping teams out of the paint.

Some may say that the Blue Devils need a “rim protector” of sorts to emerge, but where is that player coming from? 7-footer Marshall Plumlee, who didn’t see any action on Sunday night, is averaging just five minutes per game and neither Josh Hairston nor Amile Jefferson fits the “rim protector” role. That’s why Duke has to improve defensively in regards to both individual and team defense. There’s no “last line of defense” at present time, and it’s difficult to see such an option developing based upon the available options.

The Blue Devils are good enough offensively to beat most teams regardless of their issues on the defensive end. But in order to be one of the nation’s elite and challenge for a national title, the current effort being given defensively won’t cut it. Duke may not have lost on Sunday, but it became even more evident that the Blue Devils have a lot of work to do when it comes to stopping the opposition.

Michigan State playing zone? It’s possible

Tom Izzo
Associated Press
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Throughout Tom Izzo’s tenure at Michigan State the team’s half-court man-to-man defense has been a staple, and the Spartans have generally proven difficult to have a high rate of offensive success against. The reliance on that defense is why Izzo’s conversations earlier this summer about using some token full-court pressure due to the shortening of the shot clock caught some people off-guard.

According to the Detroit Free Press there’s another wrinkle the Spartans may use, and it’s likely that this wrinkle will show up more often than the full-court press. During Friday’s opening practice the Spartans worked on a 2-3 zone, and Izzo wants his assistants to make sure the team works on the defense consistently throughout the season.

That’s also why zone in general isn’t going to get heavy play at MSU, but having it as a tool could be beneficial — especially in games with touch fouls on the perimeter called in droves.

“I told (my assistant coaches): ‘You hold me accountable to working on it every day some’ … I have a tendency to drift off on that, and I don’t want to drift off on it,” Izzo said of the 2-3 zone. “But we will be, rest assured, a 90-some percent man-to-man team still and hopefully take some of those principles to zone.”

As noted in the story one of the risks in using pressure is allowing quality shots, which is why it’s unlikely that Michigan State will go to it. But even with Izzo vowing that his team will work on the zone, that doesn’t mean they’ll be playing it as often as Syracuse does.

Man-to-man has been Michigan State’s staple and it will continue to be. But it doesn’t hurt to look for other ways to keep opponents from getting the looks they want, especially if teams have five fewer seconds to find those shots.

Virginia used 3-on-3 to adjust to new shot clock

Malcolm Brogdon
Associated Press
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When the college basketball rules committee made the decision to trim the shot clock down to 30 second from 35, one reason for the switch was the desire to improve offensive production. With offensive numbers at their lowest point in years, proponents of the move see the shot clock change as a necessary move if scoring is to improve.

Whether or not that winds up being the case will be seen throughout the upcoming season, but teams are still having to make adjustments during the preseason.

Virginia, which has played at a snail’s pace (and with great success, mind you) in recent years, made some adjustments to their summer work in anticipation of playing with a 30-second shot clock. One adjustment was more games of 3-on-3 with a 15-second shot clock, which forced all involved to be more decisive in their offensive decision-making.

While the pack-line defense will always be a staple of Tony Bennett’s teams, the feeling in Charlottesville is that they’ve got the offensive firepower needed to both play faster and be more efficient offensively than they were in 2014-15 (29th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency per Ken Pomeroy). One of the players who will lead the way is senior guard Malcolm Brogdon, who led the team in scoring and was a first team All-ACC selection, and he discussed the team’s outlook with Mike Barber of the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

And even though Anderson’s highlight-reel shot blocking was the thing that frequently fueled fast-breaks for U.Va. last season, Brogdon and [Anthony] Gill said they expect this year’s team to actually push the tempo even more.

“I think we’re going to be a team that gets out and runs more,” Brogdon said. “I think we’ll have three guards on the floor, most of the time, will be able to handle the ball as a point guard and get out in transition. I think we’ll play a lot faster.”

Brogdon and Gill are two of the team’s three returning starters with point guard London Perrantes being the other, and the Cavaliers also return most of their reserves from last year’s rotation. That experience will help them on both ends of the floor as they prepare for a run at a third straight ACC regular season title. And in theory it also allows them to extend themselves a bit more offensively than they did a season ago.