Zone defense benefits Okafor, gives Duke best win since Wisconsin

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- In pockets across the state, they made plans to witness history. In Lexington, Courtney Jones bought tickets for her boyfriend, Shawn Dotson, in November and gave them to him for Christmas. In Flemingbsurg, a town of 3,010 two hours from Louisville, Kathy Stacy got tickets for Rodney Conner to celebrate his birthday on Dec. 28. Sophie Knight and Andrea Fendrick can’t even remember how long they have had their tickets, but they know they bought all new Duke gear for the game: scarves and caps and shirts. They all wanted to see win No. 1,000.

Of course, 1,000 couldn’t come today, but Duke’s most meaningful win since Wisconsin did. After a 14-0 start, Duke skidded this week, losing by 12 at North Carolina State and by 16 to Miami, stalling Coach Mike Krzyzewski at 997 career victories. The Wolfpack and the Hurricanes exploited the Blue Devils defensively, shooting 53.4 percent from the floor and 55.6 percent from the three-point line.

Against Louisville, Duke put a stop to all that. The Blue Devils held the Cardinals to 29.5 percent shooting from the floor and 16 percent from three in a resounding 63-52 victory.

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The most surprising thing about Duke’s suddenly stout defense was not the end, but the means. Coach K was going to get his defense to execute well eventually. But using a zone defense to do it was a little unexpected. According to Synergy Sports data, the Blue Devils had used a zone on just 3.7 percent of possessions coming into this game, and they employed it on less than one percent of possessions a year ago.

“We have run zone before during the season, we’ve worked on it,” Krzyzewski said after the game. “We didn’t need it.”

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t catch that earlier instance of zone from Duke. Coach K wisely rolled it out with 10:17 left in the second half while his team was up by 50 on Presbyterian in the first game of the season. It was a cunning move by the best coach in the game -- practice a wrinkle in a live game at a time when almost no one would watch and few teams would even scout.

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Against Presbyterian, Duke’s starters played seven possessions of zone before being pulled with the score at 93-38. The possessions for Presbyterian went like this: Missed deep three, missed long two, missed mid-range two, foul, turnover, made long three, missed long three. On that last possession, you can see how disciplined Duke’s defense is, and how it forced Presbyterian to burn almost the entire shot clock before finding a bad look. (Hover to start.)

When Duke’s reserves entered the game, they created three straight turnovers, which you can watch below:

The decision to go zone, which hid a defensive weakness for Duke and exploited an offensive issue for Louisville, seems almost obvious in retrospect. Jahlil Okafor struggled to switch on pick-and-rolls against Miami, and Louisville uses them on about 15 percent of offensive possessions. Allowing Okafor to sit back in the paint prevented Louisville guards Terry Rozier and Chris Jones from penetrating. Instead, they settled for deep twos and threes and finished a combined 7-for-26 from the floor with 22 points.

“If you watch Duke, you know why they got beat,” Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after the game. “They got beat with high pick-and-rolls. But they were playing zones. It was a smart move because it takes away from Okafor having to come out.”

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Defensively, Louisville double-teamed Okafor on almost every touch in the first half, and he finished the opening frame with just four points. But junior Amile Jefferson took advantage of the favorable matchups and scored 10 in the first half en route to a game-high 19 points. In the second half, because of how well Jefferson was playing, Okafor faced more one-on-one matchups and exploited them, shooting 6-of-7 and picking up 14 points.

“They couldn’t double me because of the way my teammates were playing,” Okafor said. “Everything we did today, offensively and defensively, makes it easier on me. Those two losses really woke us up.”

Those two losses may have delayed history, but they may help Duke make it in another way down the road. A team as reliant on freshman as Duke is will encounter struggles during a season. But the Blue Devils showed today that they can carry a slump into a challenging road environment and still win.

“How many wins you have, where is Coach K now? I wish I was Coach 'W' right now,” Krzyzewski said. “It is kind of unfair to them because they get scrutinized so much. I am trying to lessen that as much as I can ... Hopefully we don’t have to go through losing as much to learn these lessons, but we might. We have a long road ahead of us. It is a long journey. This was a nice stop for us.”

No, it wasn’t 1,000. It wasn’t what many of those Duke fans peppered across the arena on Saturday afternoon had hoped for when they purchased their tickets, and it won’t be memorialized in trivia questions. But for Duke, for right now, this win was enough.