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.

VIDEO: Mykhailiuk’s late 3-pointer lifts Kansas over Huskers 73-72

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Kansas snapped a two-game losing streak in dramatic fashion late on Saturday night, getting a three from Svi Mykhailiuk with 23 seconds left to give the Jayhawks a 73-72 lead at Nebraska:

The real hero of the game, however, was not Svi.

It was Udoka Azubuike.

For a team that has been surviving on jumpshooting for far too much of their offense, Azubuike’s arrival could not have come at a better time. The 6-foot-10 center went for 26 points on 13-for-17 shooting – oddly enough, he didn’t get to the foul line a single time – and added nine boards, five of which were on the offensive end.

Azubuike also made the game-saving play in the final seconds, blocking a shot by James Palmer and tracking down the loose ball to preserve the win.

Saturday College Basketball Recap: Trae Young shines, comebacks galore, five ranked teams lose

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PLAYER OF THE DAY

Trae Young is well on his ways towards becoming college basketball’s best and most exciting story this season. Entering Saturday, he was leading the nation averaging 28.8 points and third nationally in assists, averaging 8.8 per game. Those numbers are going to go up, as the diminutive freshman went for 29 points and 10 assists as Oklahoma went into Intrust Bank Arena and knocked off No. 3 Wichita State, 91-83.

That gym is one of the toughest gyms in America to leave with a win. And Wichita State, traditionally, is one of college basketball’s toughest teams, one of the best defensive units in the sport.

And Young torched them.

He had 21 points and seven assists by halftime, as the Sooners jumped out to a 54-39 lead. What was billed as a matchup between two of the nation’s best point guards devolved into Young’s coming out party on national television. Here’s the big question to ask now: Just how good is this Oklahoma team if Trae Young is college basketball’s latest superstar?

THE REST OF SATURDAY’S STARS

  • UDOKA AZUBUIKE, Kansas: The lone big man on the Kansas roster played his best game as a collegian on Saturday night. He finished with 26 points – on 13-for-17 shooting, he didn’t even attempt a free throw – and nine boards, but more importantly he blocked a James Palmer shot with less than ten seconds left to help Kansas hold on to a 73-72 win in Lincoln.
  • JUWAN MORGAN, Indiana: Morgan had a career-high 34 points to go along with 11 boards as the Hoosiers came-from-behind to knock off No. 18 Notre Dame in the Crossroads Classic. Morgan scored Indiana’s last 12 points in regulation and eight of their 15 in overtime. With 11 seconds left, he scored an and-one with Indiana down three, and after the Hoosiers got an offensive rebound, threw down the game-winning dunk.
  • TYUS BATTLE and OSHAE BRISSETT, Syracuse: Battle finished with 29 points and Brissett scored 24 of his career-high 25 points and grabbed 10 of his career-high 14 boards in the second half and overtime of an 86-79 Syracuse win. The Orange were down by as many as 13 points in the second half on the road and still managed to get a win over their rivals.
  • QUADE GREEN, Kentucky: Green had 17 points and five assists as No. 8 Kentucky knocked off Virginia Tech, 93-86, in Rupp Arena on Saturday, but what was most impressive is that Green did it while wearing a sweet pair of shades to protect an injured eye.
Quade Green (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

TEAM OF THE DAY

For the first time in four years, Rutgers is the pride of New Jersey. Playing in front of a packed house at the RAC, Rutgers came from 13 points down to knock off No. 15 Seton Hall, 71-65. Corey Sanders led the way with 22 points for the Scarlet Knights, who used a 17-2 run to close out the game after the Pirates took a 63-54 lead with six minutes left.

GAME OF THE DAY

There were a number to choose from today. Virginia Tech-Kentucky was unexpectedly thrilling. St. Bonaventure won on a buzzer-beater.

And then there were the comebacks.

North Dakota had a buzzer-beater force overtime at No. 12 Gonzaga after the Zags erased a nine-point deficit in the final four minutes. Indiana’s comeback against No. 18 Notre Dame was wild, even if much of the game itself was boring. Syracuse was down 13 in the second half and won in overtime. Rutgers was down nine with six minutes left and won. And No. 10 Xavier? All they did was erase a 22-point deficit in the final 14:25 to win.

Should I mention the insanity of what happened with No. 19 Florida State and No. 22 Florida, losing by a total of three points in the same building on the same day to unranked opponents?

But for my money, the best game that we saw on Saturday was between No. 13 Kansas and Nebraska. The Huskers desperately needed a win at home to bolster their non-conference résumé while the Jayhawks were looking to snap a two-game losing streak.

They did.

Thanks to Svi Mykhailiuk:

WTF???? OF THE DAY

Have you ever seen an arena get evacuated in the middle of a game that is being broadcast on national television?

Because that is precisely what happened on Saturday at Value City Arena as Ohio State was playing Appalachian State. Early in the second half, an exhaust fan at a concession stand failed, which resulted in the fire alarm getting triggered and the arena being cleared.

It was a scary moment, but it was also an incident that was handled precisely the way it is supposed to be handled.

WHAT ELSE DO YOU NEED TO KNOW?

It was a good day for the guys that can’t shoot in the state of Kentucky. Kentucky, ranked No. 8 in the country and last in the percentage of points they get from beyond the arc, went 11-for-22 from three as they knocked off a good Virginia Tech team that leads the nation in three-point percentage. Then there’s Louisville, who beat Memphis in Madison Square Garden on the back of a 14-for-26 three-point shooting performance.

Saturday was not a good day for the basketball teams in the Sunshine State. It started with No. 19 Florida State, who suffered their first loss of the season at the hands of Oklahoma State in the first game of a double-header. In the second game, No. 22 Florida lost for the fourth time in their last five games, as they allowed Clemson to pick up their best win of the season.

It looked like it was going to be a really bad day for No. 10 Xavier, who trailed East Tennessee State at home, 51-29, with 14:25 left on Saturday afternoon. The Musketeers proceeded to go on a 39-15 run to end the game, winning 68-66 and leaving with nothing more than a warning for why it’s dangerous to take any team lightly.

Kyle Washington had 19 points and Gary Clark chipped in 10 points, 11 boards, four assists, three steals and three blocks for No. 25 Cincinnati in a 77-63 win at UCLA.

No. 23 Arizona cruised to another road win, this time at New Mexico, thanks to 24 points from Rawle Alkins, playing his second game since returning from a broken foot.

No. 18 Purdue cruised to an 82-67 win over Butler in the opener of the Crossroads Classic. Carsen Edwards led the way with 18 points.

VIDEO: St. Bonaventure beats Vermont on Matt Mobley buzzer-beater

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St. Bonaventure outlasted Vermont in Olean, NY, on Saturday afternoon, winning 81-79 thanks to this buzzer-beating three from Matt Mobley.

It was the only shot that Mobley, who is averaging 19.6 points on the season, made on the day:

Vermont guard Trae Bell-Haynes missed a layup on the previous possession, but Payton Henson was there for a put-back to give Vermont a 79-78 lead with just five seconds on the clock.

Jaylen Adams scored 17 points and had five assists to lead St. Bonaventure. Courtney Stockard added 14 points, and Amadi Ikpeze and Izaiah Brockington each chipped in with 13.

Anthony Lamb led the Catamounts with 27 points.

VIDEO: Arena evacuated during Ohio State-Appalachian State game

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There was a weird scene on Saturday evening as Ohio State hosted Appalachian State.

Early in the second half, a fire alarm went off as the game as being played, which was followed by an announcement played over the PA asking everyone to evacuate the arena.

And it was all captured live on the Big Ten Network:

The game was eventually continued, and it appears that the incident was nothing more than the fire alarm working the way that it is supposed to. From a statement released by Ohio State: “Tonight’s event was interrupted by a failure on an exhaust fan. The fan shut off and allowed the smoke from a concession stand to enter the fresh air return on one of our air handlers and activated one of our smoke detectors. The building systems worked as they were designed and we were able to reset the alarm, repair the exhaust and return to normal operations.”

Clemson rallies past No. 22 Florida 71-69

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SUNRISE, Fla. — Marcquise Reed threw a 75-foot pass to Elijah Thomas for a dunk that put Clemson ahead to stay with 37 seconds left, and the Tigers rallied from a 12-point deficit in the second half Saturday to beat No. 22 Florida 71-69 in the Orange Bowl Classic.

With Clemson trailing 68-67, Reed rebounded a missed 3-point attempt by KeVaughn Allen and threw a football-style pass from one free-throw lane to the other, hitting Thomas on the run for an easy score.

Clemson (9-1) beat a ranked team for only the eighth time in school history and continued its best start since 2008. Florida (6-4) lost for the fourth time in the past five games.

The Tigers won despite having a point taken off the scoreboard with 4 seconds left. Thomas’ free throw put Clemson ahead 70-68, but the point was wiped out when the officials realized it was Reed who had been fouled.

Reed then made two free throws to help seal the win. He finished with 22 points, six assists and five rebounds.

Gabe DeVoe added 19 points and six rebounds for the Tigers, who shot 51 percent. Clemson coach Brad Brownell earned his 300th victory.

Jalen Hudson scored the Gators’ first 12 points and finished with 23.

Egor Koulechov sank a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give the Gators a 40-33 halftime lead, and they were up 47-35 early in the second half. Clemson took its first lead since 4 minutes into the game when DeVoe sank a 3-pointer to make it 67-66.

The meeting was the first between the teams since 1957.

No. 19 Florida State lost to Oklahoma State 71-70 in the first game of the doubleheader.

BIG PICTURE

Florida coach Mike White has been unhappy with his team’s transition defense. The Gators allowed only seven fast-break points, but that included Thomas’ decisive dunk.

UP NEXT

The Gators play host to James Madison on Wednesday.

Clemson plays host to South Carolina on Tuesday.