The questions about whether or not Duke is truly a national title contender began to pop up early on in ACC play, when the Blue Devils got smacked around in back-to-back games games N.C. State and Miami, the latter at home.
The perimeter defense of the Blue Devils. Trevor Lacey and Angel Rodriguez torched the Blue Devils so badly that head coach Mike Krzyzewski was forced to go zone against Louisville, a move surprising enough that it caught the Cardinals off-guard and allowed the Blue Devils to pick up an impressive road win.
But one game didn’t solve the issue of Duke’s ability to defender talented playmakers and ball-screen actions, and that became far too obvious a couple of weeks later, when Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant played his best game of the season, taking over down the stretch as the Irish erased a 10 point deficit in the final eight minutes of a 77-73 win.
That loss feels like decades ago, as Duke has since reeled off six straight wins, going into Charlottesville and handing Virginia their only loss of the season, beating Syracuse on the road and, on Wednesday night, knocking off North Carolina in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
What’s perhaps more impressive is that in three of their last four games, Duke has been able to completely take away an opponent’s talented lead guard. In the rematch in Durham, Grant had seven points on 3-for-10 shooting as the Irish lost by 30. In a three-point Duke win at Florida State, Xavier Rathan-Mayes finished with five points and six turnovers on 2-for-7 shooting. And in the win over UNC, Marcus Paige had just five points and shot 2-for-11 from the floor.
How has Duke been able to transform from a team that couldn’t stop any star guard to one that shuts down All-Americans?
The credit belongs to Quinn Cook, who has taken on the role of defensive stopper for the Blue Devils.
In each of those three games, Mike Krzyzewski had Cook face-guard the opponents’ star guard for 40 minutes. If they brought the ball up the floor, Cook was un their jock as soon as they passed the ball and initiated offense. If they played off the ball, he was denying the catch as soon as they crossed half court. Watch him defend Grant on this possession:
It was the same thing for Paige last night.
Here’s an example from the first half, where North Carolina tried to free their star up by running him off of a series of screens along the baseline. Cook got hung up on one of them, but he called for a switch with Matt Jones, who took over denying Paige and preventing from getting a look coming off of that screen:
Now compare that with how easy it was for Jerian Grant to receive the ball here:
That kind of denial defense does have repercussions, however, as it creates quite a bit of space in the middle of the floor. North Carolina was able to capitalize, with Nate Britt, Joel Berry and J.P. Tokoto breaking down the defense off the bounce, creating opportunities for their big men with drop-off passes, one-on-one opportunities in the post and the chance to pound the offensive glass.
North Carolina didn’t get a single offensive rebound in the first 11:37 of the game. Over the course of the next 33 minutes, they grabbed 19 offensive rebounds and scored 21 second-chance points. Their big men — Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks and Joel James — combined for 54 points and 27 boards on 23-for-33 shooting.
To be fair, part of that was the result of Okafor, who is a below-average defender when he is healthy, being slowed by an ankle injury that he suffered in the first half.
But not all of it.
Here’s my favorite example of what I mean. In the first clip, you’ll see Paige setting a back-screen for Hicks. Cook is hugging Paige, leaving Hicks wide-open to catch a lob for a dunk. In the second, you’ll see Tokoto set a back-screen. Matt Jones is guarding him and is able sink towards the rim and takeaway the pass:
The Blue Devils still have their issues defensively. They’re not great defending ball-screens, their perimeter defenders are, individually, mediocre on-the-ball. Okafor is a long way away from being Anthony Davis or Tyson Chandler.
But Krzyzewski has proven why he’s one of the greatest to ever grace the sideline this season, as he’s been able to put together a defensive schemes that have put his guys in a position to win.
He did it at Louisville. He did in against Notre Dame. And last night, he did it again against North Carolina.