When Duke entered the NCAA Tournament without a sign of a true lockdown defense, it became perhaps one of the most vulnerable Blue Devil teams in recent memory -- certainly as a 2 seed at least. For 40 minutes of its surprising 75-70 victory today, Lehigh proved the more physical, more polished and far more mature team. More than anything though, Duke's defensive deficiencies -- prevalent all season -- were evident both on the perimeter and in the paint.
The Devils have struggled to contain driving lanes for much of the season, failing to thwart pick-and-roll with quality hedges and just as importantly, lacking the perimeter quickness to contain elite guards including Lehigh's C.J. McCollum, who lit them up for 30 points and 6 assists. Their premier perimeter defender Tyler Thornton, simply didn't have the foot-speed to contain and any time a big switched out, the mismatch was quantifiable.
What's most disconcerting from Duke's point of view isn't necessarily that they don't have the talent to defend top-notch players, but that this year's team consistently failed to "help the helper."
One of the central keys to the Mike Krzyzewski defensive system is lighting-fast rotations. At halftime, he said: "Were limited." Against the Mountain Hawks, his club was not only slow, but at times, nonexistent.
The transition attack that Lehigh exploited with unmatched speed and efficiency added to Duke's misery. In the half court, when Seth Curry and Austin Rivers repeatedly got beat or lost in the screen-and-roll, the Duke big men -- particularly the Plumlee brothers -- failed to properly rotate to alter the shot. Such defensive breakdowns have haunted Duke for most of this season. In the Devils' final four losses of this season, they allowed opponents to shoot 44.4 percent from the floor, a completely unacceptable total for any championship-caliber team.
On the season, the Blue Devils allowed a healthy 99.5 points per 100 possessions, which ranks 161st in the nation, according to ESPN Stats & Info blog. Such a clip puts the team outside the top 50 in that category for the first time since rankings were available in 2000 (StatSheet.com).
Victorious Lehigh, however, remains a highly capable and surprisingly talented team stemming from the normally tournament-troubled Patriot League. McCollum -- the two-time conference player of the year -- is sensational as a slasher, creator and all-around playmaker as the nation's fifth-leading scorer. The team doesn't have a ton of depth and isn't very long, but Brett Reed's team is a high-octane offense that also happens to shoot an insane 77 percent from the free throw line. In other words, a second round upset is certainly not out of the question, especially if they can get hot from three once again.
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