Court Vision: No. 5 Duke gets back on track with win over Pitt

Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski got to 999 wins on Monday night with a convincing win over Pittsburgh. 

DURHAM, N.C. — No. 5 Duke (16-2, 4-2 ACC) got head coach Mike Krzyzewski to career win No. 999 with a 79-65 win over Pittsburgh (13-6, 3-3). But that wasn’t as important as getting its second straight win, and perhaps starting another home winning streak after its recent one was snapped at the hands of Miami. All that is arbitrary, though — it was about another ACC win, and another opportunity for this team to regain some confidence on both ends of the floor, which they seized.

1. Duke broke out a zone defense against Louisville. It wasn’t a one-time thing, evidently.

Perhaps some of the supposed shock over a Krzyzewski-coached team playing any sort of a zone for prolonged periods of time was sarcastic. But it is true that Krzyzewski does not like playing zone and would much prefer playing man-to-man.

His team showed, though, in losses to N.C. State and Miami, that it was having trouble doing that. And it wasn’t the first time — really since the Toledo game when the Rockets’ quick guards got into the lane at will did it seem like it would be a problem.

So now, Duke is switching defenses. Krzyzewski calls them out from the sideline, usually, and then point guard Tyus Jones relays them to the team. There were times when he seemed confused, times when his teammates seemed confused. But overall, they made it work.

"A couple times out there, some guy would call an ’11’ and some guy was calling ’12’ but whatever guys dropped back into, that’s what we went with," junior captain Amile Jefferson said. "That’s how you just make it work, and we just made the zone work. That’s what you have to do. We did a great job at it."

It’s only the second game where Duke has consistently shown different looks or certainly a high percentage of zone, and to be fair, the teams were No. 223 and No. 309 in three-point shooting nationally (Pitt at 223, Louisville at 309). Pitt was hitting less than 27 percent of its three’s in ACC play.

But Duke’s zone befuddled Pitt in the first half — the Panthers don’t make a ton of 3’s so they didn’t take many, but they also didn’t find some of their usual success driving and getting to the basket to draw fouls because of the congestion.

Certainly if there’s a concern, it’s that Pitt scored 1.2 points per possession in the second half and shot 51.5 percent from the field, cutting what was at one point a 20-point Duke lead to two points.

Still, it’s not a well-oiled machine yet and it’s getting there. Krzyzewski said he was pleased with it in the first half but obviously, not so much in the second. And yet it’s the defense right now that gives his team the best chance to win.

"You’re not exposed. You feel like more people have your back. So a little bit psychologically, we tried to do that. And it’s helped," Krzyzewski said. "We talk better. It’s interesting — today, in the first half because they’re right in front of us (playing defense), we can talk to them and help them. Then we go to the other end and they got 14 points in the first few minutes because they didn’t talk it out."

But that goes for whatever style of defense Duke is playing — the Blue Devils have to talk and they have to play it well.

Krzyzewski is a great coach, and the players have confidence in him, but he’s not a magician. The sheer act of him putting them in a zone defense doesn’t mean his team will have success. It’s dependent on them, too.

"We still need to not have lapses where we’re not talking or where the ball’s getting into the middle of the paint. But overall, I thought the zone was really good again today," Jefferson said.

"It makes teams take contested 3’s, and when we’re not letting the ball in the paint, it’s hard for teams to run their offense, to have to set up new things or run a different zone offense that they didn’t want to run. (Okafor) is doing a great job of protecting the basket and then as you saw today, everyone’s rebounding, everyone is going to the basket and that’s why the zone is really effective for our group."

2. Offense and defense are symbiotic for this Duke team

Krzyzewski was the one who said after the Miami game that for the past few games, his defense had been "non-existent".

Even he’s probably tired of answering questions about the zone itself, but the novelty of Krzyzewski using it still hasn’t worn off.

He was tired, though, of being asked about his team’s defensive struggles.

"You know, you guys talk about the breakdowns defensively, there were no breakdowns defensively against Wisconsin, against Michigan State, against Stanford, against Connecticut, against — we were playing great defense," Krzyzewski said.

"Our defense started to go bad when we couldn’t hit a shot. I’m not saying we can’t defend better, either. We should’ve. But I think the missed shooting, it hurt us the other way. Then what I think happened, then you’re out there alone instead of being together."

The confidence factor was clearly affecting Duke at both ends of the floor. If one of them messed up an assignment on a ball screen against Miami, it was usually glaringly obvious which one. And then, assuming in that case it was a freshman Tyus Jones, the player would have to go back to the other end and hit a shot when they’d been struggling, deriving confidence from … where exactly?

So it had to start somewhere. And where it had to start was getting stops. But instead of going full-tilt, high-pressure, high-octane defense, Duke decided to change things up a bit.

"We still pressure the ball. That’s one thing that’s different about our zone is that we pressure. The zone kind of makes you relax sometimes, offensively and defensively. We still want to attack the man if we have a 1-on-1 matchup, especially me and Tyus. The bigs did a great job talking and the guards got in there and rebounded," senior guard Quinn Cook said.

Duke got a few stops, saw a few shots go in and voila — a 46.2 percent shooting percentage that included 11-of-23 from three (47.8 percent), many of which were wide open as a result of the attention on Okafor.

"Our shots were falling amazingly tonight. So guys are not lacking confidence," Jefferson said. "To be honest, I think it was just guys were in their own world. We weren’t playing — we were worried too much about ourselves instead of the collective group. That can happen when you’re successful. You start to think a little bit more about what have I been doing, what have I been contributing, instead of what have we been doing, how can I make us better. That’s the biggest thing that has been changing in these last two games. I think we’re going to keep it this way because we’ve seen what happens when we don’t."

3. As win No. 1,000 looms, neither Krzyzewski nor his team is worrying too much about it

Obviously, Krzyzewski will have his first opportunity to win his 1,000th game on Sunday when his team travels to St. John’s for the final non-conference game of the season.

He has already set the all-time wins record so 1,000 is probably a fairly arbitrary number when you think about it, at this point. Even though all the round numbers generally get celebrated — 100, 200, 300, etc.

"I wasn’t noticing the number of games," Cook said of the mark. "I think we’re really focused about becoming 4-2 in the conference. Coach hasn’t said anything about the record or anything to us. We were 3-2 in the conference and we were trying to get our fourth win. We had the same record as those guys, so we kind of wanted to make a statement in the league and kind of make our way back to the top."

Part of it is that the players are used to these types of things. If you’re Cook or Jefferson or even Rasheed Sulaimon, you were there when Krzyzewski broke the wins record. You’ve probably seem him pass all other kinds of milestones and get congratulated for them to varying degrees.

That’s not to say it’s become boring to them, but the milestones themselves don’t mean much to the players.

"It’s always some record that he’s done or always something going on with him. That’s what happens when you’re the greatest. It’s great to just be a part of the whole journey," Cook said.

Krzyzewski’s attitude trickled down to his team. He knows he has a young group, he said, and he has to be gentle with them.

"It’s a young team, and we have to be careful. You can be fragile in that regard. But they have great attitudes. I love my team. I loved them even when we lost those two games. They’re just trying to grow up, and we’ve got to help them grow up," Krzyzewski said.

And so when a Duke team desperate for wins came into the gym last week ready to practice, he lifted their spirits.

"He doesn’t want us to be tight, and just instilling confidence in us. He’s always telling us he believes in us. When he comes in the gym, he’s always the loudest, he’s always trying to get us going," Krzyzewski said.

"When we’re not talking, he gets on us about talking. It’s very energetic. When you have an upbeat coach like that, you have no other responsibilities but to give it your best out there."

And that’s why, for them, win No. 1,000 will really be just that. It’s another building block for them along a path that will be a long and winding one, probably, for a young group with plenty of upside but lots of volatility.

"This is an amazing, amazing, amazing accomplishment for Coach K and our guys are going to be fired up," Jefferson said. "We’re playing for a 1,000th win, but that’s probably not what we’re going to be focused on. Because it’s going to happen. It’s going to happen at some point, and it’s going to be an amazing achievement for an amazing coach."

22 points — Freshman point guard Tyus Jones played his best game in a long time against Pitt, finishing with 22 on 7-of-11 shooting (4-of-6 from three-point range, a career-high) and 4-of-5 from the foul line. He was one of the freshman that had looked a little shaken by ACC play and he’s really settled in the last two games.

10 — Shooting guard Quinn Cook had a career-high 10 rebounds, and his boards were key in getting the offense a head start on the other end, making them the more aggressive ones after Pitt misses. Okafor was held to a career-low three rebounds. but Cook’s activity more than made up for it.