No. 5 Duke’s defense turns up again as Blue Devils look like title favorite

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Duke is back!

After drubbing Louisville 82-56 in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday night, the Blue Devils have now won four straight games despite the fact that they have been playing without Marvin Bagley III during this stretch.

Grayson Allen is back, too. He finished with 28 points on Wednesday night, making six threes and handing out threes assists. He entered Wednesday night averaging 22.3 points and 5.3 assists in his last three games, the first time all season long that he has scored more than 19 points in three consecutive games. He’s shooting the ball with confidence. He’s been moved into more of a playmaking, lead guard role in the half court offense as Coach K has transitioned back to being the focal point on that end, the first time he’s been in that role since his sophomore season.

Wendell Carter’s been on fire, too. He missed his fourth-straight double-double by a single rebound on Wednesday, but he did finish with 18 points, six assists and three blocks. In four games without Bagley, he’s now averaging 16.3 points, 10.5 boards, 3.0 blocks and 3.0 assists.

But that’s not why Duke is winning these games.

It’s not why I’m sitting here saying that Duke is back.

The reason why I’m warming up to the idea of Duke finding a way to be a Final Four team again is because they’ve figured out a way not only to just get stops, but to be damn good on the defensive end of the floor.

During this four-game stretch, Duke has not allowed a team to break 1.0 points-per-possession against while holding three of their four opponents to 57 points or less. In those four games, they’ve allowed 0.883 PPP. If they did that over the course of an entire season, the Blue Devils would be third-nationally defensive efficiency* behind only Virginia and Cincinnati. This is the first time they’ve held three straight ACC opponents under 60 points since 1981.

In the process, they’ve managed to climb from 79th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric to 27th, which is precisely the kind of drastic defensive improvement that the 2015 team made. They were in the 60s and 70s in adjusted defensive efficiency for much of the season. They were 37th before the tournament started. They were 11th when they cut down the nets.

And it begs the question: Is Duke better without Marvin Bagley III?

Lol.

No.

Don’t be stupid.

Marvin Bagley III is an alien. He makes every single team that he is on a better one.

What will be interesting to see is how Duke integrates him back into the team when he finally does return to the floor. There are two things that have allowed Duke to improve the way that they’ve improved over the course of the last two weeks, and both of them involve Bagley in a pretty significant way:

  1. The ball doesn’t stick as much offensively as it did when he was on the court. That’s why Allen’s been able to play the way that he’s played of late. The middle of the floor has also opened up because Duke’s gone away from trying to run high-low actions as much as they did before. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better to run offense this way, but you cannot convince that it’s a bad thing that Allen is back into a rhythm.
  2. Much more importantly, however, is that Duke has turned into a very good defensive team in this zone, and the biggest reason for that is the activity of Javin DeLaurier. Bagley is a terrific athlete, but he’s more of a five at this level than a four¬†and he’s also a guy that is not an instinctual or, frankly, energetic defender. DeLaurier is more mobile and, since he’s not really a threat offensively, he can burn off of his energy on that end.

Bagley wasn’t the lone culprit for Duke’s defensive problems.

The bigger issue may have been simply that the Blue Devils vacillated between playing man and zone until these last four games, and Coach K fully embracing being a zone team has allowed them to figure it out. As one high-major coach put it to me, it’s better to be great at one defense than it is to be good at seven of them. Duke is doing that now.

But there is valid reason to be concerned about playing Bagley and Carter together simply because playing them together has been an issue defensively before.

Maybe that means that, instead of seeming them on the court together for 30 minutes a night, they’ll each play 10 minutes with DeLaurier at the four and play together for 20 minutes. Maybe it means that instead of being awesome defensively Duke is simply good enough, and maybe good enough is all they need to make a run in March this season.

And maybe the answer is that Bagley returns and is ready to defend the way that he needs to defend.

We’ve seen that happen, too. Remember the Miami game?

Whatever the case may be will play out over the course of the next six weeks. The one thing that is clear, however, is that these Blue Devils are suddenly a whole lot more intriguing than they were two weeks ago when they lost at North Carolina.

*(For those looking at KenPom, raw points-per-possession and KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric are two different numbers. The latter is the former adjusted for strength of opponent.)