We can watch the clip of Austin Rivers sinking a game-winning bomb over Tyler Zeller all we want, but in playing its worst team defense of the past decade, Duke is still not a national title contender.
The staple of previous Mike Krzyzewski-coached teams has always been excellent defense. Even when it struggled and couldn't get past the second round just four years ago, Duke ranked at the top of the ACC and the country in most defensive categories. This season however, it has faltered, with average numbers in critical areas such as transition, pick-and-roll and dribble hand-off, according to Synergy Sports Technology. Entering the Carolina game, it ranked ninth in the conference in adjusted defensive efficiency, a number that certainly didn't improve after surrendering 84 points on 49 percent shooting.
As a result, Duke has essentially become a hyper-offensively focused team that excels in scoring the basketball. Per Synergy, the Devils rank in the 96th percentile of college basketball in the half-court and are very good in the up-tempo game, shooting a super healthy 60 percent from the floor. They are extremely effective against both man-to-man and zone defense, because Mason Plumlee has proven to be a good passer out of the high post. This is all fine and well, but with Tyler Thornton, Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins and Rivers anchoring the perimeter, they sorely lack a lockdown defender.
Because of its general lack of quickness, Duke struggles the most when trying to contain penetration off the bounce, where it has given up 226 points in 281 such opportunities -- putting the team close to the bottom fourth of college basketball. Krzyzewski is a mastermind when it comes to ball pressure and help defense, so there are several categories where the Blue Devils have remained more than adequate. They handle screens and bump cutters very well, continually guard the three, and as always, defend remarkably well out of timeouts. But the glaring weaknesses once opposing guards penetrate are what will likely prevent this team from being a true contender come March.
Once the opposing offense is able to penetrate in the lane, Duke begins to break down. Because it doesn't help defend particularly well and lacks a shot-blocking rim protector, 17-feet and in is where the team instantly becomes most vulnerable. Entering Wednesday, the Blue Devils had allowed 31.5 points in the paint per game, fifth-worst among power six conference schools. What is more surprising though, is its ineptitude in defending the pick-and-roll. Per Synergy, the team ranks in the bottom half of the nation, struggling most in guarding the roll man himself. More troublesome though, is the inability to high hedge and trap the screen, something this program has typically thrived in. Because it's been so poor, Krzyzewski has almost completely taken it out of his defensive arsenal, trapping screens only 12 times all season, a number so low it seems almost impossible.
Even with the impressive win over the Tar Heels and 20-4 overall record, this remains a Duke team that has lost two of its last three games at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and dropped multiple home games for the first time since going 15-4 there in 2006-07. Entering the UNC game, it was allowing 99.6 points per 100 possessions, which slots the team in the bottom half of all Division I schools. What's worse, according to ESPN Stats & Info, Duke is on track to finish outside the top 50 in that category for the first time since rankings were available in 2000.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org or ask me questions about anything sports-related @206Child for my upcoming mailbag.