INDIANAPOLIS — The difference between the Duke team that was blown out in back-to-back games by N.C. State and Miami and the one that has beaten the likes of Utah, Gonzaga and Michigan State en route to the national title game is simple: They’re finally playing defense.
And if you ask them what has changed, why they went from a team that gave up 1.25 PPP in those two losses to one that has not given up more than 0.90 PPP in the NCAA tournament and has climbed all the way up to No. 12 in KenPom’s defensive efficiency ratings, they’ll tell you, to a man, that it’s … because they started caring?
Matt Jones said they’re “buying into it more.” Grayson Allen called it “an emotional commitment.” Amile Jefferson referred to their improved “toughness and togetherness”, while Justise Winslow simply said they “just really committed to the defensive end.”
Quite frankly, that sounds like something straight from the handbook of the press conference cliche.
But could it also be accurate?
On Tuesday, I wrote about Duke’s defense after watching every possession that they played during the regional in Houston, and there really isn’t all that much that Duke is doing differently from the start of the year. It’s the same old Mike Krzyzewski defensive scheme, only they’re doing it better than they were two months ago. So I believe. There’s a pride that comes with being a great defensive team. It took awhile for the Blue Devils to figure that out, and it all stems from a players-only meeting that Quinn Cook called after the Miami loss, a meeting that assistant coach Jon Scheyer called, “a season changer”.
“I just called everybody to my house, watched TV, just relaxed and got away from basketball for a minute to make sure everybody was OK,” Cook said with a smile on Sunday, playing coy about the role that meeting played in Duke’s resurgence. “We let two get away from us. If you lose two in a row, your confidence can go elsewhere, and then we had a big game at Louisville that Saturday. I just wanted to make sure the guys’ confidence level was OK and tell everybody we’re fine, we just have to get this win at Louisville.”
Playing at Louisville, the Blue Devils used a 2-3 zone to jump out to a huge halftime lead in what amounted to a blowout win. The zone wasn’t much more than a gimmick, a quick fix to a major problem that didn’t have an easy answer, but it gave the Blue Devils their swagger back. It showed them that what Cook was preaching was true: Those two losses were stumbling blocks, but this team still had the pieces to be able to win a national title.
“I thought he did a great job in those meetings,” Jefferson, who is a co-captain with Cook, said. “Just being a voice and really touching everybody and letting everybody know that we have enough. That we are that good. When you lose two straight games, you believe. You start to believe…”
“It was a pivotal moment in our season.”
The Blue Devils play with that pride defensively now. They get offended when someone scores on them, because they know what’s at stake. They know who they are when they’re great defensively and they know what happens when they aren’t emotionally invested in that end of the floor.
It wasn’t a smooth transition. Duke still took some lumps late in the regular season, but you don’t become a great defensive team overnight. This is still a team that starts three freshmen and has four in their rotation. They still had things to learn on that end, and that’s before you consider the fact that the veterans on the roster had played on a team that really struggled defensively last season.
They’ve gotten better as they’ve grown, with everything coming together during this run through the NCAA tournament, but that growth can be tracked back to that players only meeting back in January.
“It’s best when the players do it,” Scheyer said. “There’s certain things where it means more coming from the players, so the fact that Quinn did that, it wouldn’t have meant the same had the coaches done that.”
“It was a season-changer.”