Will Duke’s win over Louisville give young Blue Devils confidence they need?
The past week has been a trying time for fans of the Duke Blue Devils. One week ago Duke was rolling toward Coach K’s 1,000th win. It had the makings of a magical season: Undefeated, ranked second in the nation behind Kentucky, looking like a legit national-title contender.
Then: Panic. A double-digit loss to NC State on the road, followed by a double-digit loss to Miami at home that ended the nation’s longest home winning streak. A defense that had been fairly solid all season appeared suddenly broken as Mike Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils allowed 87 points and then 90 points to two bubble teams. The Blue Devils headed to Louisville as an underdog, staring at what would be Duke’s first three-game losing streak since 2007, a team that finished in the middle of the ACC pack.
Memo from Louisville to Duke fans: Hey! Great win Saturday, guys! Huge win, in fact, a 63-52 drubbing of sixth-ranked Louisville in a game that never felt like it was that close. Duke kept on steadily breaking the vaunted Louisville press. Duke moved the ball on offense, with Tyus Jones showing why he might be the nation’s best quarterback at point guard. Jahlil Okafor again proved why he’s going to be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft and Amile Jefferson stepped up in a huge way when Louisville double-teamed Okafor, scoring 19 points and grabbing seven rebounds.
Great win! Back on track for greatness.
Here’s the most important word in my memo: "But."
But: Don’t start to believe the defensive problems Coach K has felt festering with his team since Christmas were magically fixed with one road win in a hostile environment against a talented, though flawed, Louisville team.
But: Don’t think that all is now well with a perimeter defense that has allowed big games to virtually every great guard it has faced: Miami’s Angel Rodriguez scored 24, NC State’s Trevor Lacey scored 21, UConn’s Ryan Boatright scored 22 and Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson scored 25.
But: Don’t think Louisville’s 4-of-25 game from 3-point range was the result of a suddenly potent Duke defense.
Instead, listen to what Louisville coach Rick Pitino said after his team’s blowout loss. It may help explain why Duke’s porous defense around the arc is still something that could end up as this team’s Achilles heel:
"More than any game I’ve seen this year, this was the most open we’ve been," Pitino said. "We just couldn’t knock down the shots."
And listen to Coach K, too: "They missed shots," he said afterward. "We were lucky about that."
This is not to discount Duke’s win in Louisville. Offensively, they played great against one of the nation’s best defenses. Jefferson, who is so often the unheralded glue guy for this team, stepped to the forefront. Matt Jones hit two huge first-half threes that killed any Louisville momentum. The frontcourt was as efficient as it’s been all season. This was a big win for a Duke team that ought to be considered among the nation’s top-five teams, if not the top three.
Instead, this is a warning to Duke fans: Expect more bumps in the road. Because Saturday was not so much a reflection of a defense that’s suddenly gone from porous to great. This win was more a reflection of Coach K making a rare decision to go with a zone defense. He knew this Louisville team couldn’t shoot its way to a win with a 3-point percentage that ranks 305th in the nation, and Louisville didn’t.
But what happens when Duke heads on the road to play a Notre Dame team that has the nation’s most efficient offense? Or when the Blue Devils play the choking pack-line defense of a Virginia team that can neutralize Duke’s offensive advantages? Or even when they play a Syracuse team that, despite its flaws and injuries, still leads the ACC in 3-point shooting?
To be honest, I don’t know.
What needs to be gained from Duke’s win is confidence. That was something clearly missing in the games against NC State and Miami. After Saturday’s win, Coach K said some interesting things about how it’s unfair for a team of teenagers to have the burden and pressure of his 1,000th win hanging over their heads. (Which may happen when Duke faces St. John’s on Sunday, Jan. 25 at 2 p.m. ET on FOX.) He also spoke about how poor play on offense can lead a team to lose confidence on defense and vice versa, which is something he saw the past few games. This team will have more defensive bumps in the road in a tough ACC, but this win ought to both give this team confidence moving forward. Just as importantly, it will stem the tide of outside scrutiny that’s plagued it over the past week.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t glaring problems here. The two losses exposed that. But those two losses could be what sets this team straight.
"As long as you’re winning, kids have a hard time listening to all that — they think, ‘Oh well, we won,’ " Coach K said. "They start to think even if we play poorly, we can pull it out. I think that’s what our team was doing. After losing like we did two games, I think they realized that’s not going to work anymore."
This is one of Coach K’s youngest teams. He is starting three freshmen, something he hasn’t done since the 1982-83 season when he started four. That 1982-83 team went 11-17, but those four freshmen — Johnny Dawkins, Mark Alarie, Jay Bilas and Dave Henderson — were the core of a team that would go to the national-title game in their senior years.
That’s a bygone era in hoops. These guys won’t be around as seniors. Duke’s three freshmen — Okafor, Jones and Justise Winslow — will be in the NBA next year. There is no patience for youngsters to really learn defense. They need to learn to defend now, and when they don’t they’ll have to deal with the absurd amount of scrutiny we saw when a team like Duke drops two games in a row.
"We’re a really young group. A veteran group — you’re not playing well offensively, you already know to hunker down," Coach K said. "We’ve had to go through losses, and we may have to go through more losses, in order to learn that. But we’re learning it."
"We were just more focused on defense today," Okafor said in the locker room afterward. "We came together on the defensive end. Everybody was talking, moving. Those two losses really woke us up."
Confidence is a funny thing. Sometimes you can fake confidence until you believe in it, then it becomes real. Confidence begets confidence. Basketball-wise, I’m not sure I take too many lessons out of this game. Duke still needs to work on defense. Playing at Louisville after dropping two games was the perfect scenario for Duke. It was a big, confidence-building road win against a team that can’t shoot from the perimeter — and therefore couldn’t exploit Duke’s biggest weaknesses.
That may not matter, though. If this win means increasing Duke’s confidence, that may be just what Coach K ordered.
I asked him about that afterward. Was limiting Louisville to 52 points the type of confidence-builder this Duke defense needed?
"Confidence is not a pie you cut and say this piece goes here or there," Coach K said. "This was a confidence builder and whatever the hell, offensively or defensively. We played our butts off today, and we beat a really good team. You get confidence through accomplishment. When a kid does it or a team does it, they are going to have more confidence. Hopefully we can move on and use that to play really well Monday night and get more confidence."