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.
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.