During Duke’s five-game win streak after a sluggish 1-2 start in the ACC one thing, in particular, has continued to improve for the Blue Devils: Half-court defense. That defense continued to show steady signs of improvement on Monday as No. 17 Duke controlled the second half and slowed down No. 18 Pitt on its way to an 80-65 ACC road win at Peterson Events Center.
Jabari Parker scored 16 of his 21 points in a great first half for the freshman and Andre Dawkins added 20 points on 6-for-7 shooting from beyond the three-point line, but this game was more about Duke’s improved half-court defense than their efficient half-court offense.
During a 10-possession defensive stretch in the second half, Duke pushed its lead to 64-51 with a little over five minutes remaining as the Blue Devils held Pitt to 0-for-8 shooting from the field and two turnovers during that stretch.
The Blue Devils have allowed an average of 58.4 points against them during the five-game winning streak after allowing 69.3 points against them during the 1-2 start in the ACC and much of it has to do with finding more of a consistent rotation and getting maximum defensive effort on a more consistent basis.
Although Jabari Parker still has work to do on the defensive end, he has gotten better on rotations and help defense. Marshall Plumlee and Amile Jefferson are giving good interior minutes defending the paint and rebounding. Rasheed Sulaimon is out of his early-season slump and getting more minutes, meaning Duke is adding another aggressive and athletic perimeter defender into the equation.
Duke still has to work on transition defense and other minor nuances of help defense, but the way they limited Pitt senior Lamar Patterson tonight was impressive. Duke did a nice job making sure Patterson didn’t get comfortable roaming off of high ball screens and their hedges and help rotations were noticeably better than early in January.
The Duke of a month ago wouldn’t have held Patterson to 14 points on 4-of-14 shooting, but this Blue Devils team is starting to forge a stronger identity on the defensive end and it gives Duke a chance in the ACC if they can win against Syracuse.
Not only is Wyoming senior guard Josh Adams the lone returning starter from a team that won the Mountain West tournament last season, but he’s also one of college basketball’s best dunkers. And if anyone may have forgotten about his jumping ability, Adams put it on display Saturday during the Cowboys’ win over Montana State.
After splitting two Montana State players at the top of the key Adams attacked the basket, dunking with two hands over a late-arriving help-side defender. If you’re going to rotate over, have to do it quicker than that.
Video credit: Wyoming Athletics
Even with the coaching change from Fred Hoiberg to Steve Prohm, No. 4 Iowa State remains one of the nation’s best offensive teams. Given their skills on that end of the floor many teams find it tough to go score for score with the Cyclones, and that’s what happened to Illinois in Iowa State’s 84-73 win in the Emerald Coast Classic title game.
Georges Niang scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds, with Monté Morris adding 20, nine rebounds and six assists and Abdel Nader 18 points as the Cyclones moved to 5-0 on the season. The three-pointers weren’t falling in the second half, as Iowa State shot 0-f0r-12, but they shot 19-for-24 inside of the arc to pull away from a team that lost big man Mike Thorne Jr. late in the first half to a left knee injury.
Illinois’ loss of size in the paint opened things up offensively for Iowa State, and the Cyclones took advantage. But where this group grabbed control of the game was on the defensive end of the floor, and that will be the key for a team with Big 12 and national title aspirations.
Nader took on the responsibility of defending Illinois’ Malcolm Hill (20 points) in the second half and did a solid job of keeping the junior wing in check, with that serving as the spark to a 12-2 run that put the game away. There’s no denying that the Cyclones can put points on the board; most of the talent from last season is back and the productivity on that end of the floor hasn’t changed as a result. Niang’s one of the nation’s best forwards, and both Morris (who now ranks among the country’s best point guards) and Nader have taken significant strides in their respective games.
Iowa State will add Deonte Burton in December, giving them another option to call upon. Front court depth is a bit of a concern, as Iowa State can ill afford to lose a Niang or Jameel McKay, but there’s enough on the roster to compensate for that and force mismatches in other areas.
But the biggest question for this group is how effective they can become at stringing together stops. Illinois certainly had its moments in both halves Saturday night, but Iowa State also showed during the game’s decisive stretch that they can step up defensively. The key now is to do so consistently, and if that occurs the Cyclones can be a threat both within the Big 12 and nationally.