Different, but effective: How Duke basketball’s defense has changed under a new coach
The focus on rock-solid defense forming a foundation for Duke basketball’s success hasn’t changed, despite the transition last offseason from Mike Krzyzewski to Jon Scheyer.
Scheyer made that clear from his first comments last summer, both publicly and to the team. He insisted his Blue Devils will be difficult to score against.
The manner in which Duke has accomplished that, however, reveals a slight contrast from old to new.
Sure, in your face man-to-man defense remains the hallmark. But under Scheyer, Duke is deploying zone defenses differently, tossing them out for maybe just for a possession or two.
Scheyer calls it “tossing a curve ball” to keep the opposition on its toes a bit.
“Switching defenses kind of brings a little chaos to the offense,” said Duke junior guard Jeremy Roach, the only returning starter from Krzyzewski’s final team now playing for Scheyer. “Whether it’s out of a timeout or something like that, we might switch it over or switch up for like two possessions or something like that just kind of like get the offense on their heels. I think it’s been a great addition just that we can switch off switch defenses when we need to.”
When, where, and how
The Blue Devils (16-6, 7-4 ACC) enter Saturday night’s game with rival North Carolina having allowed 63.7 points per game. That’s No. 40 nationally. Only Virginia, No. 9 at 60.2 points, is better among ACC teams.
Duke’s opponents have made 41.1% of their field goals, putting the Blue Devils No. 58 nationally in field goal defense, and 30.1% of their 3-point attempts, placing Duke No. 36 nationally.
To be clear, just as it did with Krzyzewski, Duke mainly plays man-to-man defense. According to Synergy Sports, Duke has played man defense 95.2% of the time.
But the Blue Devils used a zone in six of 11 ACC games, too, sometimes for just two possessions, like in a 75-59 win over Boston College on Dec. 3. In a 68-66 win over Miami on Jan. 21, Duke played zone for five possessions, mixing it in to cross up the Hurricanes’ talented backcourt of Isaiah Wong and Nijel Pack.
“We had to change our defenses up,” Scheyer said after that win. “Miami’s an explosive team. You’re never relaxed when you’re playing against them.”
The zone hasn’t always been successful. Scheyer employed it for nine possessions on Jan. 4 in a futile attempt to stop N.C. State’s assault in what turned out to be an 84-60 loss to the Wolfpack.
Last season, Krzyzewski was more apt to employ a zone for longer periods of time, like when Duke played zone for 17 possessions in a 78-73 NCAA tournament win over Texas Tech or 15 possessions the following game in the 78-69 West Regional final win over Arkansas.
It’s just a slight wrinkle Scheyer is employing now that he’s in the big chair.
Scheyer learned plenty about defense during his playing career when he helped deliver Krzyzewski and Duke an NCAA championship in 2010. Still, he’s quick to say an out-of-the-box hire last spring is playing a major role in Duke’s defensive success this season.
Jai Lucas, Scheyer said, is the team’s defensive coordinator. Hired away from Kentucky as an assistant coach, Lucas is an oddity on Duke’s coaching staff in that he didn’t play for, or coach with, Krzyzewski.
Yet Lucas has provided exactly what Scheyer wanted when he made the hire.
“For me, it’s great having someone that can push and challenge you that thinks differently,” Scheyer said. “I’ve known the way that we’ve done it, which has been as successful as anything possible, and you need to adjust. We have a different team this year.”
Whereas other Duke teams were known for getting in passing lanes for steals, the live-ball turnovers that lead to fast breaks, these Blue Devils are more adept at making a team use most of the shot clock before taking a low-percentage shot.
Duke does that with its length and athleticism. Dereck Lively, a 7-1 freshman center, is athletic enough to defend a guard on the perimeter and be a rim protector. Mark Mitchell, another freshman at 6-8, can do the same, as can 7-0 freshman Kyle Filipowski.
Roach and 6-5 freshman guard Tyrese Proctor are counted on for their on-ball defense.
“We can do a lot of different things,” Lucas said. “I think we just have the pieces where we can do a lot defensively and you always have to be able to rebound and we’ve been able to do that as well.”
Sometimes Duke, while in man-to-man, will have everyone switch who they are guarding as a ploy to disrupt ball screens. That requires the athleticism the Blue Devils possess but also high-level communication among players in real time.
When things have gone awry defensively, like in that loss to N.C. State or in a 78-75 loss at Virginia Tech on Jan. 23, that’s been the culprit.
Playing different defenses often throughout the course of a game does challenge Duke’s players.
“At times it’s difficult to keep on switching defenses,” Duke graduate student center Ryan Young said, “but I think it’s created a ton of chaos for different offenses to come down the court and have a different look based on what lineup we have in and what defense we’re in.”
Scheyer is quick to realize when something isn’t working, make the change and ask his players to execute it. That could be in the first half or the game’s final possession.
“You’re just trying to steal a possession or two within the game,” Lucas said. “In conference games or in March, you know, it may come down to one or two possessions. So if you can steal one early, it may give you a better chance to win late.”
Duke strives to keep teams to 50 points or less scored while holding them to no better than 42% shooting overall and 30% on 3-pointers. The goal is to limit teams to no more than six 3-pointers a game.
Those are lofty goals but ones the staff believes will maximize the chances of winning.
In a program renowned for its defense, Duke continues to play it well, even if the style is just a bit different.