Court Vision: No. 6 Duke downs No. 4 Louisville with stifling zone

Duke freshman Jahlil Okafor (18 points, seven boards) had little trouble getting quality shots along the baseline. He also won the big-man battle, outplaying Louisville's Montrezl Harrell.

Jamie Rhodes

Here are seven random observations from No. 4 Duke’s 63-52 thumping of Louisville on Saturday, a road rout that was far more decisive than the 11-point final spread:

1. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski deserves mad props for primarily playing zone against the Cardinals, a move that clearly caught the Louisville coaches and players off-guard in the first half.

How unusual was the strategy? During the broadcast, ESPN sideline reporter Doris Burke noted that — prior to Saturday’s game — the Blue Devils had played a straight-up zone for 3.6 percent of their defensive possessions.

And that’s the beauty of a surprise initiative: How long do you think Coach K was sitting on this defensive plan against Louisville, one of the ACC’s poorest-shooting clubs? One week? Two weeks? A full month?

In big games like this, it’s awesome to see coaches run counter-intelligence ploys to get the job done.

Even if the legendary Bobby Knight — Krzyzewski’s coaching mentor and an unflinching supporter of man-to-man defense — was undoubtedly yelling at the TV screen throughout the game.

2. Speaking of Coach Knight, Saturday’s strategic gem reminds one of the time Indiana and Notre Dame played in the early 90s … and the Hoosiers operated in a 2-3 zone for their first three possessions — prompting Irish coach Digger Phelps to run at Knight in mock anger — while the action was still taking place.

3. It’s weird how Louisville (15-3, 3-2 in ACC) ranks among the nation’s best defenses (16th in points allowed); and yet, Okafor could seemingly score at will against the Cards — especially when attacking from the baseline.

Which brings us to this: I loathe comparing college teenagers to current pro stars … but it’s impossible to watch the on-court machinations of Okafor (18 points, seven boards) and not think of future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan.

There’s a robotic grace to Okafor’s game, whether catching the ball on the block, overpowering defenders along the baseline or passing out of double-teams.

Plus, you have to love the kid’s passion for defense. I counted at least four times on Saturday … when the emotionally charged Okafor was demanding intensity from the other Blue Devils defenders.

4. Forget about the Minnesota Timberwolves’ 6-32 record right now. They could be staring at a 12-year run of playoff success — starting next season — if/when the franchise lands Okafor at No. 1 overall in the June draft.

A 26-and-under foundation of Okafor, Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Zach LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad, Glenn Robinson III, Thaddeus Young and Ricky Rubio, along with Nicola Pekovic, would be hard to replicate with other NBA franchises.

Plus, that core would essentially cover all the bases — versatility-wise — meaning that Minnesota execs wouldn’t feel obliged to draft a specific position (or type of athlete) with subsequent picks.

5. After watching Louisville slog through home losses to Kentucky (Dec. 27) and Duke, it’s fair to wonder if the No. 6 Cardinals have enough firepower to advance to the Sweet 16 round in March.

Chris Jones (five points on 2 of 10 shooting), Wayne Blackshear (seven points on 2 of 10 shooting) and Terry Rozier (team-high 17 points) shot just 9 of 36 from the field — a galling stat that somehwat explains the club’s 30-percent shooting day.

6. At 15-2 (3-2 in ACC), Duke remains in good position to claim the conference title and/or collect a top-2 seed in the NCAA tournament. But wow, it’s hard to predict Final Four greatness for these Blue Devils, considering the lack of offensive punch from the bench.

To wit, every member of the starting five — Okafor, Amile Jefferson (19 points, seven boards), Justise Winslow (seven rebounds), Tyus Jones (10 points, eight assists), Quinn Cook (seven points, five boards) — played at least 30 minutes on Saturday … leaving the three reserves (Marshall Plumlee, Rasheed Sulaimon, Matt Jones) to account for just three rebounds and six points in 30 cumulative minutes of action.

That won’t get it done in the NCAA tourney, especially if/when the big-man duo of Okafor and Jefferson gets nto early foul trouble against aggressive clubs that shoot substantially better than Louisville.

Speaking of Sulaimon … he was tabbed for college prominence as a up-and-coming freshman two years ago. But as a junior, Sulaimon runs hot and cold — with no real grand explanation for it.

For the season, Sulaimon has notched double-digit points eight times. On the flip side, he’s also scored three or fewer points five times — including three goose eggs.

In fact, he’s only posted two games of five field goals made.

7. It’s plausible that Coach K (998 wins) won’t notch his 1,000th victory until the Feb. 4 clash with Georgia Tech.

Check out Duke’s four-pack of games covering the next two weeks: Home to Pittsburgh (Monday) … and then three straight road outings with St. John’s (a prospective NCAA tourney team), No. 12 Notre Dame (a school with a loooooooooooong history of spoiling milestones) and No. 2 Virginia — quite possibly the best team in country.

And that includes top-ranked Kentucky.