Krzyzewski stays the course on Duke’s defense, even as so much else seems to change

By one measure, the expert assessment of its coach, this year’s Duke basketball team is doing more or less what Duke teams always do. By another measure, though, that of memory and observation, Mike Krzyzewski’s current squad is proceeding differently on defense than it’s done for much of the time since his players started leaving early for the pros 20 seasons ago.

“We have the ability to teach at the highest level,” Krzyzewski explained the other day in an exclusive interview. “With this group it starts with the pressure on the ball and Tre (Jones) does that as well as anybody. And then the fact that we have great lateral quickness. And we’re big. It’s not just 6-2 guys, it’s 6-6, 6-7, 6-8, and with wingspans. So that’s why we’re teaching it.”

Over the past few years, Duke uncharacteristically made zone a defensive staple. The adaptation proved so reliably effective last season the freshman-dominated Blue Devils, only seven deep, stayed with a zone as their predominant alignment. The move produced one of the best field goal percentage defenses of Krzyzewski’s career, the Devils coming within a missed inside shot of reaching the Final Four.

Zones and sloughing man defenses can mask weaknesses, like guards who struggle to stop dribble penetration, big men who can’t cover opponents at a remove from the basket, or groups that don’t communicate well on the floor. When Duke won the NCAA title in 2010 it did so by adopting caution, defending without resort to checking opponents until they reached the top of the key.

“Defensively I’ve adjusted the man as far as pickup points,” Krzyzewski says of variations over time. “So it might look like we’re playing different but we’re playing still the man-to-man.”

Yet outsiders can’t avoid being struck by the changed tenor of Duke’s approach this year. However temporarily, the Blue Devils of Jones, R.J. Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish et al not only boast athleticism and size at every position, they’ve largely sidestepped the debilitating effects of inexperience and ever-changing personnel. The result is a team that can attack at both ends of the court with ferocity reminiscent of the best Krzyzewski squads, most recently those that competed straddling the turn of the century.

Bristling with talent, over four seasons those teams collectively stormed to the NCAA title in 2001, won four ACC tournaments, averaged 33 wins, and went a cumulative 57-7 in the league. The ’99 squad, the last ACC club to go undefeated in conference play, reached the national championship game and was arguably the best forgotten team in league history, finishing 37-2.

Defensive focus

Today Duke mirrors those forebears in ranking among the highest-scoring squads in the nation and in school history. But, then, scoring hasn’t been a problem for Duke since the late ‘80s. What’s a departure from recent experience is an offense which, in keeping with units of another era, feeds off a wealth of turnovers forced by disruptive ball pressure.

That in part requires unwavering defensive focus, uncommon among freshmen. “You don’t get tough playing offense,” Krzyzewski says. “You get tough by stopping somebody. Together. That’s why defense done the right way builds character.”

In nonconference play the 2019 team is holding opponents to the lowest combined field goal percentage of Krzyzewski’s 39-year tenure. That ability to stifle the opposition is tied to blocked-shot and steal averages that rival any in school history. Projected across an entire season, the Devils’ 8.0 blocks per game would set a modern league record.

No wonder that, entering ACC play, the current club boasted the biggest average scoring margins ever compiled at Duke.

“We plan to play man. You can recruit to it, and then as you start playing you say we can do more. Part of it is the ability to have the chemistry that we do, and the work ethic,” Krzyzewski says. “I like to play with the best I’ve got. I can’t make chicken soup without chicken and ingredients. When you have the ingredients then make the chicken soup. We have it.”

The zone question

Back in the early ‘80s, even as his teams endured losing records in his second and third seasons Krzyzewski insisted he would not compromise his commitment to man-to-man defense. “At that time, we were trying to build character,” he recalls. “The foundation of our program had to be built on character and you could best build character by not compensating no matter what you had.”

He acknowledged then, as now, team defense includes elements of zone. But he had a vision from which he would not diverge, a vision that, until roster churn became constant within his program, was passed along like a family heirloom from veteran to newcomer.

“Someone would say, ‘You would have 1,150 wins if you went zone,’” Krzyzewski says. “Not necessarily. We might have 900 because we never would have gotten to the level of character that we needed.”

Krzyzewski is nearing that hypothetical zone-assisted threshold, anyway. As the 2019 calendar year dawned he had 1,111 career victories in 44 seasons at Army and Duke, second-most by any coach, male or female, in NCAA college basketball history. The leader, Harry Statham of Division II McKendree University in Illinois, finished a 52-year career in 2018 with 1,122 wins.

Meanwhile, the ’19 Devils are proof that, despite fashioning teams at an accelerated pace, Krzyzewski’s variations on a defensive theme continue to work as well as ever.

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