Duke’s defense, lack of size won’t prevent them from contending


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From Nov. 20th thru Dec. 1st, I’ll be on the road, hitting 21 games in 11 days. To follow along and read my stories from the road, click here.

NEW YORK — No. 6 Duke entered the semifinals of the Preseason NIT 5-1, the lone loss coming to No. 2 Kansas at the Champions Classic. Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood were living up to their Preseason All-American hype. The Blue Devils were scoring points at a prolific rate, ranking No. 1 in Kenpom’s offensive efficiency ratings as their lineup featuring five perimeter players proved impossible to matchup with.

But offense is only going to get you so far if you can’t stop anyone, and Duke had been downright atrocious on the defensive end over the course of the first two-and-a-half weeks of the season.

As of Wednesday, the Blue Devils were 179th in the country in defensive efficiency rating, according to Kenpom, a number that is obscenely low for a team coached by Mike Krzyzewski. For all the stereotypes out there about the Blue Devils, their best teams have always been able to defend.

The issue for this group?

Their front court. Duke doesn’t have a dominating interior presence. They have the undersized Josh Hairston, the out-of-position Amile Jefferson and the overmatched Marshall Plumlee. It’s The best player in that loss to Kansas? Power forward Perry Ellis, who finished with 24 points. Duke also likes to pressure out on the perimeter, but that opens them up to getting beaten off the dribble where they lack a rim protector. Vermont — Vermont — was 21-for-24 on shots in the paint against Duke, the majority of which came off of dribble penetration.

(MORE: Aaron Gordon is better than what the box score says.)

Simply put, Mason Plumlee ain’t walking through that door.

“We’re not a pro team,” Coach K said. We can’t get a guy on a ten-day contract or from the D-League. This is who we have.”

To their credit, the Blue Devils were much, much better defensively the past two days. Both Alabama and Arizona really struggled getting anything going in the half court. The Wildcat’s three big guys — Aaron Gordon, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski — were good in Friday night’s 72-66 win in the NIT title game, but they weren’t overpowering. The trio finished with a combined 33 points and 18 boards on 12-for-18 shooting, numbers that are going to be common for opposing front lines, especially when they are as big as Arizona’s.

But Duke certainly wasn’t dominated on the interior despite the fact that Arizona made it very evident that their goal throughout the game was to get the ball inside. Duke scouted well and stuck to their game-plan. Every post touch, the Blue Devils double-teamed on the dribble, rotating well enough that they cut off penetration from Arizona’s back court. They were daring Arizona to shoot threes, and the Wildcats obliged, missing nine of their first 11 attempts.

It wasn’t until Nick Johnson hit a tough three at the end of a shot clock, which was followed by a deep three from Aaron Gordon, that the Wildcats went on their game-changing, 20-5 run. A 43-37 Duke lead turned into a 57-48 deficit, but that wasn’t the front court’s fault.

“We played really well on the defensive end,” Krzyzewski said. “We were playing our hearts out. They’re difficult to defend.”

“I have no fault for my team.”

The bottom-line is this: Duke has a small front court. We all know they have a small front court. That’s not going to change unless Jahlil Okafor somehow finds a way to enroll in college for the spring semester.

That ain’t happening, so the Blue Devils are going to have to find a way to compete — to defend — despite their size deficiencies.

On Friday, they did. Just like they did against Alabama on Wednesday. Think about it like this: Duke lost to a very, very good Arizona team by six points on a night when Jabari Parker was 7-for-21 from the floor and didn’t hit a field goal in the second half until there was less than three minutes on the clock.

“There’s no shame in losing to Kansas,” Coach K said. “Or Arizona.”

Perhaps the best news for Duke fans is that there aren’t many elite teams out there with overpowering front lines. Arizona is as good as anyone, and this was a very winnable game for Duke.

Every team has issues they have to overcome. Friday night was evidence that Duke is, at the very least, trending in the right direction.

Size is not an excuse anymore.

Saturday’s NCAA Tournament Recap: An evening full of buzzer-beaters and monster performances

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No. 5-seed Kentucky advanced to the Sweet 16 with a win over No. 13-seed Buffalo, and the star of the show was the guy that’s been Kentucky’s best player for three months: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. He finished with 27 points, six boards, six assists and a pair of steals on 10-for-12 shooting while making both of his threes and 5-of-7 free throws.

That’s a ridiculous line, one that makes me wonder whether or not we were premature in saying that this Kentucky team does not have a superstar that can take a game over.


  • ZACH NORVELL, Gonzaga: Two days after hitting a game-winning shot against No. 13-seed UNC Greensboro, Norvell went for 28 points, 12 boards, four assists and two steals — sidenote: !!!!! — as the Zags beat No. 5-seed Ohio State.
  • ANGEL DELGADO, Seton Hall: 24 points, 23 boards, five assists, career over. Salute, sir. It’s been a pleasure.
  • KEENAN EVANS, Texas Tech: Evans finished with 22 points on 8-for-14 shooting to lead the Red Raiders to the Sweet 16 with a win over Florida.


You make the call here.

Was it Jordan Poole’s buzzer-beating three for No. 3-seed Michigan:

Or Clayton Custer hitting Loyola-Chicago’s second game-winner in the span of three days?:


The buzzer-beater that didn’t matter … did.

Myles Powell, with Seton Hall down 83-76, hit this running three at the buzzer. It meant that the final score was 83-79, meaning that Seton Hall covered the 4.5 points that Kansas was favored by. It also meant that the Pirates covered the second half line (Kansas -1.5) and Seton Hall’s wild last minute rally meant that this game also hit the over:

Bad beats everywhere.


No. 1-seed Kansas was +21 in the 22 minutes that Udoka Azubuike played on Saturday. They were -17 in the 18 minutes he didn’t play.

No. 1-seed Villanova shot 17-for-41 from three in an 81-58 win over Alabama to get to the Sweet 16.

Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter overwhelmed No. 7-seed Rhode Island as No. 2-seed Duke is now a Sweet 16 team.

VIDEO: Jordan Poole’s last-second three sends No. 3-seed Michigan into the Sweet 16

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For the first time in this NCAA tournament, we have a buzzer-beater.

After Devin Davis missed a pair of free throws with 3.6 seconds left, No. 3-seed Michigan went the length of the court and Jordan Poole, a freshman who was scoreless on the night, buried a three as time expired to send the Wolverines into the Sweet 16 with a 64-63 win:

When asked after the game how a freshman was able to make that shot, Michigan head coach John Beilein said he has “an overdose of swag.”

Poole’s three bailed out Michigan in what was an otherwise ugly performance.

John Beilein’s club shot 35.6 percent from the floor, 8-for-30 from three and looked stagnant and bogged down offensively for 39 minutes and 56.4 seconds before Poole saved their season.

No. 6-seed Houston got 23 points from Rob Gray, who was again sensational and certainly deserved a chance to extend his career for another game. He had 39 points in a win over No. 11 San Diego State in the opener and was the best player in the West Region for the first weekend of the tournament.

No. 3 Texas Tech moves on to Sweet 16 after topping No. 6 Florida

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Texas Tech’s defense is good enough to keep them in any game. Keenan Evans is clutch enough to do the rest.

The Red Raiders’ senior star had another superlative second half, capped by throwing a game-sealing lob with 30 seconds left, as No. 3 Texas Tech took care of business against Florida, 69-66, to make just the fourth Sweet 16 appearance in program history.

Texas Tech had to survive a final flurry by Florida after the Red Raiders turned the ball over with under 20 seconds, and the Gators got two solid looks from 3-point range that would have forced overtime but both missed the mark to preserve the Texas Tech win.

It also preserved Evans’ performance.

The all-Big 12 guard had 22 points, with 14 coming in the second half. In two NCAA tournament second-halves, Evans 11 of 14 from the field and averaging 16.5 points.

The guy is just getting it done, and maybe his best play of the game was a pass.

Clinging to a three-point lead and the clock running under 30 seconds, Evans slipped through the defense, got into the paint and flipped a pass above the rim to freshman and dunker-extrodnaire Zhaire Smith for an alley-oop that put Tech up five.

Clutch alley-oops are the best alley-oops.

Florida got 23 points from Jalen Hudson, 12 form Egor Koulechov and 11 from Chris Chiozza. The Gators, though, made just 6 of 22 (27.3 percent) from 3-point range and surrendered 13 offensive rebounds. Texas Tech’s defense tightened in the second half, holding Florida to just 33.3 percent shooting overall and 19.2 percent from beyond the arc.

That defense for Tech is the foundation of what they do. It is one of the best in the country without an obvious, exploitable weakness. They’re good at every spot.

It’s keeping offenses off-kilter that lets Evans shine. When you’ve got a player as productive and clutch as he is, a close game isn’t something to fear. It’s something to welcome as you can probably count on him to get you through it.

Evans is under-appreciated nationally thanks to playing in the Big 12 outpost of Lubbock, Kansas owning every headline in that league and the toe injury that sapped him of his productivity late in the year. His emergence now on the national stage isn’t surprising so much as it is overdue. Simply, he’s been one of the tournament’s stars, and there are still games to play for Texas Tech.

Zach Norvell, Rui Hachimura lead No. 4 Gonzaga past No. 5 Ohio State

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Gonzaga’s veteran guards were no where to be found on Saturday night.

Johnathan Williams? He spent most of the night in foul trouble, while Killian Tillie looked like a shell of the player that had made Las Vegas his playground during the WCC tournament.

Those four players — the stars of this Gonzaga team, the veteran leaders that were supposed to carry this iteration of the Zags as far as they will go — combined for just 34 points against No. 5-seed Ohio State in the second round of the NCAA tournament, but the Zags still managed to hold off the Buckeyes and advance to the Sweet 16 with a 90-84 win. They led by as many as 15 points in the first half and blew a 13-point half time lead before a late 13-0 run earned them the win.

And it is all thanks to Rui Hachimura and Zach Norvell.

Hachimura is the highlight reel. He finished with 25 points and five boards despite the fact that he shot missed six from the free throw on Saturday night, but the shots — and plays — that he made down the stretch were massive. There was the three with just under four minutes left at the end of the shot clock to push Gonzaga’s lead back to six points after they had completely blown a 13-point halftime advantage. There was the block on Ohio State star Keita Bates-Diop a couple of possessions, when it looked like he was going to score at the rim on a bucket that would have ended a Gonzaga run. He even helped break Ohio State’s press in the final minutes, as the Buckeyes were trying to rally in the final minutes.

But Norvell was the star, and it started early. The redshirt freshman from Chicago got hot early, hitting a couple of threes as the Zags jumped out to a 13-0 lead that they maintained for much of the first 20 minutes. The shot that everyone will remember, however, was a step-back three from deep in the corner with less than two minutes left on the clock that put the Zags up seven and lets the partisan Boise crowd breathe a sign of relief after a tense, strenuous second half.

And with that, the Zags were back in the Sweet 16 a season after they reached their first Final Four and national title game.

Rui Hachimura (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

Frankly, I think that the way that this season has played out says more about the strength of the Gonzaga program than last year’s run to the final weekend did.

We’ve known for years just how good Gonzaga is. They were a No. 1 seed before. They’ve been the No. 1 team in the country heading into the NCAA tournament. They’ve been on the national radar for two decades. They send players to the NBA. Just because they hadn’t been able to find a way to win four games in an event as fluky and exciting as the NCAA tournament doesn’t tell me anything beyond the fact that they got unlucky a couple of times when they were good enough to do it.

As the saying goes — and as Tony Bennett, Sean Miller and Chris Mack can attest — you’re only the best to never do it until you do it, and then you’re just ‘the best’.

But this group was without two key seniors from last year’s team. They also last two players that could have been all-americans to early entry when freshman Zach Collins and junior Nigel Williams-Goss both declared for the NBA Draft.

It takes a special kind of a program to withstand an unexpected hit like that and still field a roster capable of being a top four seed and getting to the Sweet 16.

And don’t, for a second, think that they are done.

We’ve seen what this team can get out of Hachimura and Norvell.

We know what Perkins, and Melson, and Tillie and Williams are capable of.

A trip to San Antonio could be in the cards.

Some might tell you they’re the favorite to get there out of the West.

But even if they don’t, just remember what this team was able to accomplish after what they lost.

It tells you all you need to know about Gonzaga basketball.

Sister Jean the star of Loyola’s Cinderella run

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Yeah, Loyola beating Tennessee to gain a spot in the Sweet 16 is a great basketball story, but the best news about their Cinderella run is something else entirely.

America gets another week with Sister Jean.

The Ramblers’ 98-year-old team chaplain has captured the hearts of the March Madness public, with her pre-game prayers and post-game celebrations. Clayton Custer’s game-winner was fine, but Sister Jean’s been great.

Loyola, though, will now have to try to defy Sister Jean. She picked against the Ramblers in the Sweet 16 in her bracket.