Duke’s defensive improvement stems from ‘season changing’ players only meeting


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.”

It worked.

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.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.