Duke’s Defense: Much Better This Year, But Good Enough?

Posted by Brad Jenkins (@bradjenk) on December 1st, 2014

Sunday afternoon in Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski won the 990th game of his career, 93-73 over Army. This game was a matchup of the only two schools that Krzyzewski has coached, and he was proud of both of them afterwards. In the postgame press conference, the veteran coach heaped praise on the Black Knights, and talked about how impressed he is with the job Army’s coach Zach Spiker is doing at West Point, where Krzyzewski played in the 1960’s and coached for five years before coming to Duke in ’80. Army came in to the game undefeated (5-0) and hung with the Blue Devils well into the second half before freshmen Jahlil Okafor (21 points) and Tyus Jones (16 points, 10 assists, 0 turnovers) helped push the game out of reach. Duke has now won its first seven contests, all by 10 or more points, and along with the highly touted freshmen class, the improved Blue Devil defense has been the story so far.

Matt Jones (#13) and Amile Jefferson (#21) are part of an improved Blue Devil Defense. (Photo: Grant Halverson/Getty Images North America)

Matt Jones (#13) and Amile Jefferson (#21) are part of an improved Blue Devil Defense.
(Grant Halverson/Getty Images North America)

Krzyzewski has long been lauded as a great defensive coach, and he has won many conference and national championships with stellar play on the defensive end, but that was not the case at all in 2013-14. Last year the Blue Devils ranked #116 in adjusted defensive efficiency, easily their worst finish since Ken Pomeroy started tracking the metric in 2002. There were many reasons cited for that weak performance: youth; not enough interior size; and a general lack of team toughness. Although they are still relatively young, Duke seems to have solved the size and toughness issue, at least so far. Last season, the problems surfaced early, giving us an indication that something was amiss with Duke on the defensive end. First there was the 94 points scored by Kansas in an 11-point Champions Classic Jayhawk win, and then even more troubling, Vermont hung 90 on the Blue Devils in a narrow one-point loss to Duke in Cameron. Duke went on to a fine 26-9 season but was plagued all year by having such an unreliable defense. Now after seven games in 2014-15 let’s look at how some of Duke’s defensive numbers compare to the first seven games from 2013-14 and with last season’s final stats:

 Duke Defense

Duke is doing much better overall, holding opponents to 15 less points per game compared to the first seven games of last year. The key has been improvement in three main areas. With Okafor and reserve Marshall Plumlee giving the Blue Devils more size inside, the defensive two-point field goal percentage has gone way down. Now not having to play out of position, Amile Jefferson has flourished as a long active defender as a forward, getting athletic help on the wings from Justise Winslow and Matt Jones. The two-point guard lineup of Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook has helped Duke apply better ball pressure as well, forcing three more turnovers per game. Finally, with everyone seemingly comfortable in their role, the Blue Devils are able to play defense without fouling, a huge problem last year. It’s interesting to see that even though the schedule obviously got tougher as the year went on, last year’s squad didn’t see its numbers change much from the first seven games. So Duke probably improved over the year, as one would expect from a team coached by a Hall of Famer, just enough to stay average in these statistics. But average defense is not good enough to win championships. Of the last 10 NCAA champs, none have had a defense ranked higher than #21 (2008-09 UNC) in final adjusted defensive efficiency. Duke currently ranks #14 in that metric, and even though they have shown great improvement over last year, it’s too early to say for sure that they will end up with a top-twenty defense in 2014-15. The first huge test for Duke this season comes Wednesday night at Wisconsin. The Badgers are tall and experienced, with good ball handlers and multiple shooters that will present major problems for any defense, so we should get an indication of whether or not Duke’s defense is really championship caliber, at least at this point in the season.

Brad Jenkins (325 Posts)

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