In the aftermath of Duke’s 93-81 win over North Carolina, the victorious Blue Devils talked like many Duke players have during the last three decades. They talked about defense. They insisted that their success comes from D and that their improvement must be on the defensive end.
That sounds good, and very Coach K-like. It flunks the eye test, however.
After all, they had just scored 93 points – 53 after halftime – and dispatched the Tar Heels by 12 even though the Heels shot just a smidgen under 60 per cent (59.6) from the floor. The last time Carolina shot that well and lost a game was in the mid 80’s. This was perhaps Duke’s best performance in a number of weeks, and it had precious little to do with Duke defense.
In fact, their D was exposed against the Heels, as it has been many times this season. To be blunt, this Duke team is simply not a great man-to-man defensive team, and it does not have the ability to develop into one either. Their players are simply better at scoring than they are defending. One might even observe that when Duke has their defensive specialists on the floor – notably Tyler Thornton and Josh Hairston – that their offense suffers more than their defense is helped. That they’ve won more since the offensively impaired Hairston found a place on the bench is not a coincidence.
And when you factor in more officiating emphasis on hand checking and a greater reluctance to call charging, the defensive recipe that Coach K has ridden to nearly a thousand victories might be a tad obsolete today. At least, I submit it is with his current personnel.
The Devils have had an up and down season, but some trends are pretty consistent. When they win, they score big. This usually involves a big game from Jabari Parker and a few hot hands from among a cast that includes Rodney Hood, Andre Dawkins, Rasheed Suilamon and Quinn Cook. The most important member of that group is probably Dawkins, who has also seen more playing time and more looks from 3 in Duke’s best games. He is the only player that opens up the floor inside for Parker and Hood simply by being in the line-up, a dynamic that Hood has alluded too all season long in post game comments. It’s almost as if he’s lobbying for more Dawkins and, well, probably less Thornton.
Duke has some other good long range shooters, but they all have more room to fire away when Dawkins is in the game. He’s probably worth 5 percentage points to every other player even when he’s not hitting. When Duke has struggled, it’s when their offense misfires and their defensive deficiencies remain.
With such a reliance on offense, and the three pointers being a big part of that, it’s hard to predict how far Duke can go in the ‘one and done’ format of the NCAA. All it takes is one off night, and you go home. Having said that, the recipe they used against Carolina Saturday night seems to be their best shot. A lot of Parker and Hood taking it to the hole, and a floor opened up by the threat of the bomb, especially from Dawkins. In fact, in Duke’s last title run – 2010 – Duke does not advance past a red-hot Baylor team in the regional final without Dawkin’s run of treys.
He was a freshman then. Now he’s a fifth-year senior. And if Duke has a chance to make a big run, it will take his threes – opening up the floor for the freshman Parker for dribble drives – to make it happen. They can talk “D” all they want, this Duke team can only win big with offense. Ironically, that’s really been the case with most of Coach K’s National Championship teams.