Final Four Storylines: Duke Edition

Posted by Henry Bushnell on April 3rd, 2015


The Final Four is set. This week we’ll continue our NCAA Tournament Storylines series focused on each of the remaining four teams. We kicked things off with Kentucky on Tuesday, and followed with Wisconsin yesterday. Today, it’s Duke‘s turn.

Coach K's 12th Final Four (USA Today Images)

Coach K’s 12th Final Four Ties Him With the Legendary John Wooden For Most All-Time (USA Today Images)

Coach K in the record books. It’s been a pretty special year for Mike Krzyzewski, highlighted by his 1,000th win and an NCAA Tournament run resulting in his 12th Final Four appearance, tying former UCLA legend John Wooden for the most of all-time. And Coach K might not be done. He has a chance to improve his impressive 8-3 record in National Semifinal games this weekend in Indianapolis, the best such record of any coach. And with two more wins, he is poised to move into sole possession of second place in all-time national championships with five (his current mark of four is tied with Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp). Coach K’s long career means that he’s also experienced his fair share of postseason disappointments, but those exits more than anything speak to just how tough it is to win in March. The consistency with which Krzyzewski’s teams have gone deep into the second and third weekends of the Big Dance is astounding.

Duke is here because of its defense. Much has been made of Duke’s struggles on the defensive end of the court this season. The Blue Devils had an especially rough stretch in January and February during which they gave up more than a point per possession in eight of 10 games. Conventional wisdom suggests that it was Duke’s offense that carried it to a sterling 28-3 regular season record. But since the onset of the NCAA Tournament, Duke’s defense has been the driver behind its Final Four run. The Blue Devils have held all four of their opponents to fewer than 0.90 points per possession and, as a result, have now cracked the top 20 of KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Their performance in crunch time of the Elite Eight win over Gonzaga exemplified that improvement. Duke held the Zags to a single Byron Wesley free throw over the final 5:43 of the game. There hasn’t been a discernible difference in Krzyzewski’s philosophy — he’s always stressed the importance of team defense — but perhaps Duke’s young players have developed a better understanding of his defensive principles and it is translating now more than ever, a dangerous proposition for the rest of the Final Four.

Suddenly, Jahlil Okafor is no longer dominant. The talented big man is considered among the top five players in the country (and the best freshman), but he had an underwhelming weekend in Houston. Against Utah and Gonzaga’s group of bigs, Okafor shot only 7-of-16 and logged two of his worst offensive rating performances of the entire season. One of the reasons that Okafor is so effective is because of all the attention he commands in the post. When he receives the ball, opponents have to choose between one of two self-destructive strategies: either leave the center in one-on-one coverage and hope for a herculean effort from his post defender; or double-team him and become susceptible to Duke’s many talented perimeter threats. Okafor’s excellent passing ability makes the second option deadly, and his footwork and finishing ability around the rim renders the first one foolish. So what happened last weekend? Have teams figure out how to play him? Has he worn down after a long season? Does bulk and size bother him? Okafor is a uniquely talented player, but his most recent performances were somewhat concerning.

Justise Winslow’s coming-out party. Winslow has had an up-and-down freshman season at Duke. He came in as a very highly-regarded prospect and showed glimpses of his talent prior to conference play, but he has had trouble finding his role within Duke’s offense. For example, over a five-game stretch in mid-January, he posted five consecutive offensive ratings below 100 that included a scoreless performance in Coach K’s historic win over St. John’s. But since the dismissal of Rasheed Sulaimon, Winslow has elevated his game. A big reason has been greater faith in his outside shot. Since the start of February, he is shooting a blistering 54 percent from beyond the arc (vs. 42 percent on the season). As teams have realized that they must also honor that part of his game, he’s been able to unload more of his complete offensive arsenal. With Okafor’s minimal offensive impact last weekend, Winslow stepped in as the catalyst for Duke’s Sweet Sixteen win over Utah and made a several more big plays in the Gonzaga victory to boot. As a result, he has shot up the draft boards and will be a key player for Duke’s chances to cut down the nets this weekend in Indianapolis.

Henry Bushnell (39 Posts)

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