I was stunned after the Ohio State loss. The Duke players were tired, having come off of a dramatic victory in Maui and lots of travel. Then they ran into a buzz saw at Value City Arena in Columbus. That home crowd was fired up and all of the OSU players were playing as well as they possibly could. The way that Krzyzewski coached, and the way that the players watched with bewilderment as Ohio State played the perfect game, led me to believe that it was an anomaly. Was Duke exposed? Not really. They were exposed to the fact that a talented team who plays a perfect game is going to beat anyone. I was sure that this would be a teaching moment that would humble this team and cause them to focus on defensive tenacity and offensive chemistry. Instead Duke came back from the break and limped into the Temple game, clearly viewing it as a final tune-up before they went into conference play.
How, you may ask, can I suggest that Duke “limped” when they won games by an average score of 95-63? Turnovers. Duke turned the ball over 18 times against a UNC Greensboro team that has only won 2 games. Then they turned it over 15 times against WMU and 12 against Penn. Maybe those are good defenses, you say? According to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings, UNCG is 295th, WMU is 161st and Penn is 178th. The 295th (out of 345) best defense in the country managed to turn Duke over 18 times. The Penn game looks the best with “only” 12, but they still gave the ball over to the 178th ranked defense in Division-I 12 times. In case you were wondering, Duke turned Penn over 13 times, so they squeaked out a victory in that turnover battle by a margin of one.
Temple had a record of 9-3 going into this game. Penn and WMU were common opponents and had actually given Fran Dunphy’s team trouble. The Owls edged out Penn 73-67 in Overtime and beat WMU 69-55 in regulation. KenPom had Temple ranked as the 44th overall team. Their offense was 43rd and their defense was 79th. Neither one suggested that there was anything to watch out for. Duke was ranked 3rd and 27th respectively. Temple’s starting lineup of Hollis-Jefferson, Lee, Moore, Fernandez and Wyatt were at a huge height disadvantage to Duke. They stand 6’6, 6’9, 6’4, 6’4 and 6’4. Ryan Kelley, Mason Plumlee and Miles Plumlee all tower over any potential defender. Any one of the backcourt trio of Curry, Dawkins and Rivers is capable of scoring 30 points on any given night and Quinn Cook is very effective at creating off of the dribble. This Duke team had advantages no matter how you matched this game up, yet they were thoroughly outplayed.
As I mentioned above, turnovers have been a huge problem for the Blue Devils. Even the blowout wins have looked sloppy and the offense has never really looked like a cohesive unit. In most cases this year, Duke’s far superior talent has been able to casually score its way to victory. But after these two losses, brutal in different ways, but each because of the same fundamental problem, it looks like this team is not a traditional Mike Krzyzewski Duke team.
The teams that we grew up watching overwhelmed their opponents with smothering perimeter defense, which led to a huge turnover advantage and an abundance of transition baskets. Their execution was crisp and their intensity was unmatched. During nearly every televised game the play-by-play announcer warns of the “patented Duke run”. These runs involved floor-slapping defense, forced turnover after forced turnover, timely 3-point shooting, and (at home) the deafening cheers of the student section. No matter how close the game, Duke teams could break the will of their opponents in a matter of minutes. This current team is playing a brand of basketball that is a far cry from the glory days. They allowed a Temple team, which is much worse offensively than Ohio State, to shoot nearly 60% as a result of what appears to be a massively flawed perimeter defense. Duke turned the ball over 16 times again and worse yet, failed to capitalize off of the 17 TO’s that Temple gave them. (I say gave them because very few were the result of anything that Duke did defensively) Temple definitely hit some big shots; but the turnovers show that they didn’t necessarily play a perfect game, which is what makes this loss so troubling.
The starting lineup on Wednesday night was Curry, Thornton, Rivers, Kelly and Mason Plumlee. Thornton’s presence shows that the coaching staff is trying to inject the defensive intensity of old into the lineup, but is problematic for the team’s offensive flow. Andre Dawkins is a special shooter who is not assertive enough offensively to be a “sparkplug” off the bench. He needs to start every game and get a couple of looks at 3-pointers to see if he is feeling it or not. At Ohio State, they probably left him in too long, but today he didn’t get enough chances. He needs to develop some confidence and I think that starting every game would be a great help. Curry and Rivers both seem unsure of how to run the offense. They slowly dribbled around their high screens, and sheepishly attacked the basket as if they were afraid to shoot, then went up while looking to pass, and finally decided to throw up a contested layup. I feel like I watched that sequence over and over again.
Cook is the best and only true point guard on this team, but he can’t get the minutes that he needs to effectively run the offense because of his defensive shortcomings. This has resulted in a constant reshuffling of lineups, never allowing the players to get comfortable in their roles. We have seen the “non-traditional point guard” work in the past with Scheyer and Smith; but in each of those cases, each player’s responsibility was clearly defined. Curry and Rivers are failing to develop offensive rhythm due to the “take-turns” way that they are running the point. I would like to see Curry on the ball in a Scheyer type of role. He should bring the ball down the court and immediately pass to the high post or the wing, and then run the baseline and curl around screens to get open for a 3-pointer. This would allow Rivers to move within the offense and be more comfortable knowing when to attack and when to pass.
The post players, with the exception of Kelly, were actually able to exploit their size advantages when the guards got them the ball in the post. Unfortunately they couldn’t do that enough. It was the worst of a guard-driven offense, there was no pick and pop with Kelly, no pick and roll with Mason and no drive and dish to a perimeter shooter. None of the ball handlers went confident enough to the basket to draw a double team and weren’t able to find any of their teammates open.
Kelly’s problems may run a lot deeper than guard play. He seems to be at his best when a bigger player guards him. He looks comfortable enough taking them out to the perimeter and shooting if they dare him, or driving if they play him close. When a smaller, quicker player guards him, he is totally unwilling to post them up at use his considerable height advantage. We saw this in both losses this season. I wasn’t too concerned after the OSU game because DeShaun Thomas, who is long and athletic, stayed in front of Kelly the entire night. This wasn’t troubling until I read an assessment from Chad Ford today that said that Thomas will remain a long-shot for the NBA until he learns to play defense. Temple’s big guards had no problem staying in front of him either. Let’s hope that he is able to learn a few post moves and use his height in the future.
I am going to withhold judgment on the future of this team. We have a great, and experienced coaching staff and a load of offensive talent. If they don’t learn to play old-school Duke defense on the perimeter, then Kendall Marshall is going to have a field day dishing out assists en route to a couple of big wins. The athletic teams in the ACC could be a bother as well if they are able to frustrate Duke’s offense and make a few shots like Temple did. As frustrated as I was tonight, I cannot let go of the fact that this team COULD beat anyone if they execute. If the guards learn their roles within the offense and start pressuring the ball better, then the difference will be night and day. I am not going to stop being foolishly optimistic just yet; but if this doesn’t start looking better very soon, I am going to start with the apocalyptic predictions and Maker’s Mark is going to have to back a truck up to my house. Don’t let me down boys. Bring on the ACC.