FILM SESSION: Duke’s defensive tweak and what it means as they take on North Carolina

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The outlook of Duke’s season is significantly different today than it was three weeks ago.

That’s when the Blue Devils went down to Coral Gables and got dissected by Miami, losing 80-69 in a game where they gave up 1.27 points-per-possession (PPP) to a good, not great, offensive team. The Blue Devils had lost four of their last five games at that point, and they were a mess defensively. Amile Jefferson’s injury had sapped them of any interior depth they had, which forced them into playing Brandon Ingram exclusively at the four, and the coaching staff was still trying to figure out how to deal with that.

Playing their trademark, half court man-to-man defense created too many mismatches and resulted in too much foul trouble for a team that couldn’t afford to have any of their key players — they essentially use a six-man rotation with freshman Chase Jeter spelling Marshall Plumlee at times — sitting on the bench. The Blue Devils tried different variations of zone, but that has been an outright disaster; according to Synergy, Duke’s giving up 0.972 PPP when they play zone, which is in the 25th percentile nationally.

Over the course of the last two weeks, however, Duke has started to make some strides on that end of the floor, and it stems from a subtle tweak that they’ve made in their defensive philosophy: They’re not switching anymore.

Typically, in head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s half court man-to-man defense, the Blue Devils switch whenever possible. Sometimes it’s just like-to-like screens — when a guard screens a guard or a big screens a big — but generally speaking, they’ve switched all exchanges 1-through-4; from the point guard to the power forward, if two players screen for each other, run by each other or even just switch sides of the floor, Duke will switch. The theory behind this is that, while it creates mismatches at different spots on the floor, it also makes it a nightmare for the offense to run their sets and initiate actions where they want to on the floor.

This was quite prevalent the last two games, and it worked. Last Monday, Louisville scored just 24 points in the first half and Duke, in total, gave up less than 1.000 PPP, the first time they’ve done that against tournament-caliber opponent since they lost to Utah on Dec. 19th. They followed that up by holding Virginia — who, believe it or not, is the nation’s 12th best offensive team, according to KenPom’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric — to 1.052 PPP, which is nearly a 0.1 PPP off their season average.

That doesn’t sound like much, but in a 65 possession game, that’s a 6.5 point difference. It’s probably worth noting here that Duke is a 6.5-point underdog tonight against North Carolina.

Here’s what I’m talking about.

In this first example, Duke is trying to switch on a double ball-screen set by Indiana’s three and four, but for some reason three Blue Devils end up chasing the ball. The resulting confusion results in Marshall Plumlee trying to guard Troy Williams one-on-one.

Layup:

Here, you’ll see Ingram switch onto Notre Dame point guard Demetrius Jackson when Jackson, after making the pass to initiate offense, runs off of a flare screen. After Jackson receives the ball on the opposite side of the court, Ingram is too slow in trying to ice a side ball-screen — “icing” a screen means the defender guarding the ball doesn’t allow the ball-handler to go over the screen, keeping the ball pinned on the sideline — which allows Jackson to get into the teeth of the defense.

After some horrid help defense … layup:

Now watch this possession from the win over Virginia. Not only does Duke not switch a single screen or exchange, but Plumlee camps out in the lane much the way that he would if he was the middle of a 2-3 zone:

The other major difference during this four-game winning streak is that the Blue Devils are actually starting to get on the glass a little bit.

On the season, Duke is 279th in defensive rebounding percentage, allowing opponents to grab 32.3 percent of their available offensive rebounds. In ACC play, that number is 33.6 percent, with the problem coming to a head against Syracuse, when the Orange grabbed an insane 26 offensive rebounds. But again, the last four games — and particularly the last two — have been a different story. Duke is getting more than 70 percent of the available defensive rebounds — which would be fourth in the ACC at this moment — despite three of the four opponent during that streak sitting in the top six in offensive rebounding in the league.

Against Louisville and Virginia last week?

Duke allowed a total of just 15 offensive boards.

Now, part of this is due to their scheme. When you’re playing a straight man-to-man, it’s a lot easier to protect the defensive glass. In zone, it’s difficult to find someone to box out. In a switching man-to-man, mismatches abound; bigs have to try and box out quicker guards on the perimeter while Duke’s little guys are forced to try and keep some of the ACC’s best big men from getting to the glass.

In a straight man-to-man? It’s all about effort, pride and understanding the angles. Can I keep my man from beating me one-on-one to the loose ball? Do I know where the ball is going to bounce off the rim? There’s a reason, when you talk to scouts at any level, you’ll hear them say, “rebounding translates.”

It’s a skill, one that North Carolina has in abundance.

This is where Wednesday night’s game will be won: on the glass.

More specifically: Will Brandon Ingram be able to hold his own on the glass against North Carolina’s NBA-caliber front line?

Ingram is the ultimate matchup problem. At 6-foot-9, Ingram is a natural small forward, with a sweet shooting stroke, a smooth mid-range game and enough handle to both initiate offense and beat a slower defender off the dribble. He gets the opportunity to do the latter quite often for Duke, as he spends all of his time playing the power forward spot in the same way that Justise Winslow did last season and Jabari Parker did before him.

The problem is that where Winslow was an elite defender, Ingram is more like Parker when it comes to being a defensive stopper, particularly in the post. He’s thinner than Taylor Swift and, for much of the season, was probably just as physical as her in the paint. Can he keep Brice Johnson and Isaiah Hicks off the offensive glass? Can he handle Kennedy Meeks or Joel James in the post?

And in the end, I think that’s what this game is going to come down to.

Who forces whom to make a change?

Against Virginia, after digging themselves an 11 point first half hole, Duke for Virginia to go small when Ingram made seven straight shots and scored 18 consecutive Duke points while Virginia’s bigs were trying to guard him. Tony Bennett was forced to put Malcolm Brogdon on Ingram and play a four-guard lineup, which took away from what UVA likes to do offensively.

Can Ingram do the same against North Carolina?

Or will the Tar Heels simply be able to overpower him inside?

UConn adds former Rutgers guard Cam Spencer from transfer portal

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STORRS, Conn. — National champion UConn added some shooting depth to its roster Friday, announcing the signing of former Rutgers guard Cam Spencer from the transfer portal.

Spencer, who graduated last month with a year of eligibility remaining, averaged 13.2 points in his only season in New Jersey. The 6-foot-4 guard, who played his first three seasons at Loyola of Maryland, shot 44.4% from the floor, including 43.4% from 3-point range.

“Cam is the perfect addition to our basketball program,” UConn Coach Dan Hurley said. “He brings a unique combination of high-level skill and feel for the game, with a fierce competitiveness that has allowed him to enjoy a terrific college basketball career thus far.”

The Huskies lost their top 3-point scoring threat, sophomore Jordan Hawkins, to the NBA draft, along with wing Andre Jackson Jr. and post Adama Sanogo.

Guard Tristen Newtown gave the Huskies a boost last month when he withdrew his name from the draft pool and returned to Storrs.

The Huskies began summer workouts this week, welcoming a top recruiting class led by 6-6 point guard Stephon Castle, a McDonald’s All-American from Georgia. The class also includes 6-7 wing Jayden Ross and 6-4 guard Solomon Ball from Virginia, 6-7 wing Jaylin Stewart from Seattle, Washington, and 7-foot center Youssouf Singare from New York.

“I think that some of my strengths will stand out in UConn’s style of play,” Spencer said. “They have a lot of great movement and they play so well together, with great chemistry. I think that I can come in and hopefully contribute to that.”

NCAA tweaks rules on block/charge calls in men’s basketball

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INDIANAPOLIS — The NCAA is tweaking how block/charge calls are made in men’s basketball.

The NCAA Playing Rules Oversight Panel approved rule changes on Thursday that require a defender to be in position to draw a charge at the time the offensive player plants a foot to go airborne for a shot. If the defender arrives after the player has planted a foot, officials have been instructed to call a block when there’s contact.

Defenders had to be in position to draw a charge before the offensive player went airborne under previous rules.

NCAA Men’s Basketball Rules Committee members made the proposal after NCAA members complained that too many charges were being called on those types of plays.

The panel also approved reviews of basket interference calls during the next media timeout – if the official called it on the floor – a shot clock reset to 20 seconds on an offensive rebound that hits the rim, and players being allowed to wear any number between 0 and 99.

A timeout also will be granted to an airborne player with possession of the ball, and non-student bench personnel will be allowed to serve as peacekeepers on the floor if an altercation occurs.

Charlotte head coach Ron Sanchez resigns after winning CBI title

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ron Sanchez resigned as head coach of the Charlotte 49ers.

Sanchez took over the 49ers on March 19, 2018, inheriting a team coming off a 6-23 campaign. In five years Charlotte went 72-78 under Sanchez, highlighted by winning the College Basketball Invitational championship this past season, the Niners’ first post-season tournament title in school history.

The 22 wins this past season are the most for Charlotte since 2001.

“Ron took over a proud but struggling program and carefully rebuilt it into a 22-game winner. He has led with class, dignity and devotion to our young men,” Charlotte director of athletics Mike Hill said. “His decision to step down from Charlotte was a difficult one for him and everyone associated with our program. We wish him and his family every happiness.”

Hill said the team has already begun a national search for a replacement.

“This is a bittersweet day for me and my family as I step down to pursue other opportunities,” said Sanchez, who came the 49ers after working as an assistant coach at Virginia under Tony Bennett. “It has been a tremendous privilege to lead the 49ers basketball program over the past five years and I want to thank Niner Nation for its support. I will be forever grateful to my staff, players and the university.”

Marquette extends Shaka Smart’s contract through 2029-30 season

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MILWAUKEE — Marquette coach Shaka Smart has received a contract extension after leading the Golden Eagles to their first outright regular-season championship and tournament title in the Big East.

Smart’s contract now runs through the 2029-30 season. This is the first extension Smart has received since signing a six-year deal when he took over as Marquette’s coach in 2021.

Marquette didn’t release financial terms of Smart’s deal.

“In a very short period of time, Shaka and his staff have done a tremendous job of establishing a winning culture, both on and off the court,” athletic director Bill Scholl said in a statement. “Shaka’s vision for the program is focused on extended, sustainable success. The individuals who interact with the team on a daily basis are able to observe frequent examples of growth and the excitement around the program is contagious.”

Marquette has gone 48-20 in Smart’s two seasons and reached the NCAA Tournament each of those years.

The Golden Eagles went 29-7 and won the Big East’s regular-season and tournament championships last season after the league’s coaches had picked them to finish ninth out of 11 teams. Marquette’s season ended with a 69-60 loss to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament’s round of 32.

Purdue’s Edey returning to school at NBA draft deadline; Kentucky’s Tshiebwe stays in

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Purdue’s Zach Edey decided it was the right call to go back to school instead of staying in the NBA draft. His predecessor as national player of the year, Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe, is sticking with his pro pursuit.

And Connecticut’s reign as NCAA champion will begin with multiple starters having left for the NBA draft and one returning after flirting with doing the same.

The 7-foot-4 Edey and UConn guard Tristen Newton were among the notable names to announce that they were withdrawing from the draft, the NCAA’s deadline for players who declared as early entrants to pull out and retain their college eligibility.

Edey’s decision came in social media posts from both the center and the Boilermakers program that earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament behind Edey, The Associated Press men’s national player of the year.

But Tshiebwe announced late in the afternoon that he would remain in the draft after a college career that included being named the AP national player of the year in 2022.

For the current champions, Newton (10.1 points, 4.7 assists, 4.5 rebounds) is returning after being one of four Huskies to declare for the draft after a run to UConn’s fifth national championship in early April. He scored a game-high 19 points to go with 10 rebounds in the victory over San Diego State in the title game.

The others were Final Four Most Outstanding Player Adama Sanogo, wing Jordan Hawkins and versatile guard Andre Jackson Jr. Sanogo (17.8 points) and Hawkins (16.3) have made it clear they have closed the door on their college careers, while team spokesman Phil Chardis said that Jackson (6.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.6 assists) would remain in the draft.

The Huskies have 247sports’ No. 3-ranked recruiting class for next year to restock the roster, led by McDonald’s All-American point guard Stephon Castle.

The NBA’s withdrawal deadline is June 12, but is moot when it comes to college players returning to school due to the NCAA’s earlier timeline to retain playing eligibility.

STAYING IN SCHOOL

TREY ALEXANDER: Creighton gets back a 6-4 guard who averaged 13.6 points and shot 41% from 3-point range in his first full season as a starter.

ADEM BONA: The 6-foot-10 forward and Pac-12 freshman of the year is returning to UCLA after starting 32 games as a rookie and averaging 7.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks – with coach Mick Cronin praising his toughness for “competing through multiple injuries for as long as he could” in a statement Wednesday.

EDEY: He averaged 22.3 points, 12.9 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and 1.5 assists while shooting 60.7% from the field. His presence alone helps Purdue be a factor in the Big Ten race.

JOSIAH-JORDAN JAMES: The 6-6 guard went through the NBA G League Combine and had workouts with multiple teams before opting to return to Tennessee for a fifth season alongside teammate Santiago Vescovi.

JUDAH MINTZ: The 6-3 freshman averaged 16.3 points and 4.6 assists for Syracuse, ranking third among Division I freshmen in scoring behind only Alabama’s Brandon Miller and Lamar’s Nate Calmese.

OWLS’ RETURNEES: Florida Atlantic got good news after its surprise Final Four run with the return leading scorers Johnell Davis (13.8) and Alijah Martin (13.4). ESPN first reported their decisions, while Martin later posted a social media statement.

TERRENCE SHANNON JR.: Illinois got a big boost with Shannon announcing his night in a social media post. The 6-6 guard is returning for a fifth college season after averaging 17.2 points.

SPARTANS’ RETURNEES: Michigan State announced that guards Jaden Akins and A.J. Hoggard have withdrawn from the NBA draft. Standout guard Tyson Walker had previously withdrawn in April, setting up Tom Izzo to have five of his top scorers back.

GOING PRO

KOBE BROWN: Missouri’s 6-8 swingman opted against returning for a fifth college season after being an AP first-team all-Southeastern Conference pick averaging 15.8 points last season.

JAYLEN CLARK: The third-year UCLA guard averaged 13.0 points and 6.0 rebounds while leading the Pac-12 with 2.6 steals en route to being named Naismith national defensive player of the year. Cronin called him a winner with strong intangibles who made UCLA “a better program because he chose to be a Bruin.”

BRICE SENSABAUGH: The Ohio State freshman averaged 16.3 points and 5.4 rebounds in 31 games before missing his final two in the Big Ten Tournament due to a knee injury. He’s a potential first-round prospect.

TSHIEBWE: The 6-9, 260-pound forward is a tough interior presence who led the country in rebounds for two straight seasons (15.1 in 2022, 13.7 in 2023) while racking up 48 double-doubles. But he faces an uncertain next stop and is projected at best as a second-round prospect.