NIT Season Tip-Off  Duke v Arizona

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.

Indiana upsets No. 4 Iowa, moves into first-place tie in Big Ten

Indiana's Troy Williams (5) and Collin Hartman (30) celebrate after Williams made a shot and was fouled during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 85-78. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
(AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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Indiana picked off the No. 4 team in the country on Thursday night, beating Iowa in Assembly Hall, 85-78.

It goes without saying that this was a huge win for the Hoosiers. They had just a single top 50 win on their résumé entering the night. They were on the right side of the bubble entering the day, but for a team that just moved into a tie for first place in the Big Ten with the win, they were no where near as safe as you might think.

You read that right.

Indiana is not exactly safe when it comes to their NCAA tournament standing despite, on February 11th, being tied with Iowa and Maryland for first place in the Big Ten.

So yes, adding a top ten win to that profile is incredibly significant.

Having a realistic shot at winning the Big Ten regular season title is incredibly significant.

But more than anything, how this win came to be matters more than anything.

For starters, it came on a night where Yogi Ferrell was off. He hit his first shot and his last shot of the night, but missed all ten field goal attempts in between. He finished with just one assist compared to two turnovers and four fouls. He was bad. And it didn’t matter. For a team that relies as heavily upon a player as Indiana relies upon Yogi, that’s significant.

As is the fact that the Hoosiers were able to win despite blowing a 16-point lead. Remember, Indiana had lost to Penn State on Saturday. Following that up by blowing a huge lead at home in the most important game of the season is the kind of thing that can obliterate a team’s confidence, and with a brutal stretch run — at Michigan State, Nebraska, Purdue, at Illinois, at Iowa, Maryland — getting into a funk now would be a season-killer.

Six Hoosiers scored at least nine points, led by 14 from Ferrell, while it was the play of Thomas Bryant and Troy Williams, grabbing 10 of Indiana’s 19 offensive rebounds, that really made the difference; the Hoosiers scored 26 second-chance points.

As far as Iowa is concerned, the only real problem coming from this loss was their inability to keep Indiana off of the offensive glass. The Hoosiers had 12 offensive rebounds in the first 20 minutes. Iowa had 11 total rebounds. On the season, the Hawkeyes are 225th nationally in defensive rebounding percentage. Indiana gets to the offensive glass as well as anyone, but Fran McCaffery is not going to be happy about their numbers — or effort — when he watches this film.

LATE NIGHT SNACKS: Indiana, California pick up important home wins

Indiana's Collin Hartman (30) and Yogi Ferrell (11) celebrate late in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Iowa, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2016, in Bloomington, Ind. Indiana won 85-78. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
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GAME OF THE NIGHT: Indiana 85, No. 4 Iowa 78

There’s now a three-way tie atop the Big Ten standings, as the Hoosiers outlasted the Hawkeyes in Bloomington. Yogi Ferrell led five Indiana players in double figures with 14 points, and Tom Crean’s team won this one in large part due to their rebounding (19 offensive rebounds) and accuracy from the foul line. Indiana made 18 of its 21 attempts from the charity stripe, with Iowa going a pedestrian 13-for-23. Jarrod Uthoff scored 24 points and Mike Gesell 17, but those missed opportunities from the foul line proved costly for Fran McCaffery’s team.

IMPORTANT OUTCOMES

California 83, No. 11 Oregon 63: Jabari Bird scored 24 points to lead the way offensively as Cal moved to 15-0 at Haas Pavilion this season. Oregon simply did not have any answers for the Golden Bears, who shot nearly 56 percent from the field and racked up 27 second-chance points and 46 points in the paint. As a result the top seven teams in the Pac-12 are separated by a total of two games. So how does Cal go about ensuring that they don’t have to sweat out Selection Sunday? By doing something that’s proven to be far easier said than done for them this season.

Temple 63, UConn 58: With six minutes remaining UConn held a 12-point lead and appeared poised to pick up a win in Philadelphia. Things didn’t play out that way however, as Temple closed the game on a 21-4 run to pick up a much-needed win for their NCAA tournament hopes and move to 9-3 in the American. Quenton DeCosey scored 23 points and Daniel Dingle 15 for the Owls, who are now 6-0 on the season against the other top teams in the American (UConn, Cincinnati, SMU and Tulsa).

Syracuse 85, Florida State 72: The Orange opened the second half on a 13-1 run, grabbing control of a key game between teams looking to add quality wins to their NCAA tournament résumés. Michael Gbinije scored 22 points and grabbed eight rebounds, and Malachi Richardson added 17, six board, five assists and three steals for the Orange. Devon Bookert led four Seminoles in double figures with 15 points, but FSU shot just 8-for-26 from three against the Syracuse zone.

STARRED

Rokas Gustys, Hofstra: Gustys racked up 25 points and 15 rebounds in Hofstra’s 86-80 win at William & Mary.

Matt Harris, UMass-Lowell: Harris scored 33 points, shooting 10-for-15 from the field, in the RiverHawks’ 108-95 overtime win at Maine.

Jabari Bird, California: Bird scored 24 points, shooting 9-for-14 from the field, in the Golden Bears’ blowout win over No. 11 Oregon.

Nick Emery, BYU: Emery scored 37 points in the Cougars’ 114-89 win at San Francisco, shooting 10-for-12 from three.

STRUGGLED

Chattanooga: The Mocs committed 26 turnovers in their 67-61 loss at Western Carolina.

James McGee, Southern Utah: McGee shot 2-for-10 from the field, scoring six points in the Thunderbirds’ 86-53 loss at Montana.

OTHER NOTABLE RESULTS

  • UMass knocked off VCU 69-63 in Amherst, dropping the Rams a game behind Dayton in the Atlantic 10 standings.
  • Matt Tiby accounted for 24 points and 11 rebounds and Jordan Johnson added 14 points and ten assists as Milwaukee won 93-85 at Oakland.
  • James Madison picked up an important 56-52 win at Charleston, but leading scorer Ron Curry left the game with a knee injury. His status moving forward will be of great importance to the Dukes.
  • Jacksonville fell short in its quest to grab sole possession of first in the A-Sun, as they lost 93-92 at Lipscomb.
  • High Point won at Coastal Carolina, beating the Chanticleers 68-67. Adam Weary led a balanced offensive effort for the Panthers with 13 points.
  • Stony Brook extended its win streak to 17 straight games with a 75-52 win at UMBC. Jameel Warney finished the game with 22 points and seven rebounds.
  • Western Carolina handed Chattanooga its second loss in SoCon play, beating the Mocs 67-61. Torrior Brummitt finished with 16 points and ten rebounds for the Catamounts.
  • Charlotte scored 66 second half points in a 102-73 win over Rice. Mark Price’s 49ers shot especially well from three, connecting on 17 of their 29 attempts.
  • There’a a two-way tie atop the Northeast Conference, as both Saint Francis (PA) and Fairleigh Dickinson picked up wins Thursday night. Wagner, which entered the night tied for first, lost at LIU Brooklyn 82-69.
  • UAB won for the 18th time in their last 19 games but they had to work hard for it, beating Southern Miss 80-77 in double overtime. Chris Cokley accounted for 17 points and 13 rebounds off the bench for the Blazers.
  • Montana State shot an incredible 25-for-43 from beyond the arc in a 101-58 win over Northern Arizona.
  • Montana (10-2) and Weber State (9-2) remain atop the Big Sky standings, as both picked up comfortable home wins Thursday night. While the Grizzlies blew out Southern Utah 86-53, Weber State beat Sacramento State 63-50.
  • Oregon State picked up a 62-50 win at Stanford, a good result for a team in need of more wins as they look to earn an NCAA tournament bid. Also winning in the Pac-12 was Colorado, which avoided a bad loss by beating Washington State 88-81 in double overtime.
  • Gonzaga grabbed sole possession of first in the WCC with a 92-66 win at Portland. They had some help from Pepperdine, which went up to the Bay Area and beat Saint Mary’s 69-63 in Moraga.