Tudor: Perimeter defense, depth will be keys for Devils

ctudor@newsobserver.comNovember 9, 2012 

The strangest of Duke’s seven basketball losses last season was the one that ended it – the still stunning 75-70 NCAA elimination by Lehigh in Greensboro.

While all Blue Devil fans and probably most of the players would prefer to erase the night from their memory, the framework of that game almost certainly will have an impact on how the 2012-13 season unfolds.

Against Lehigh, a 15th-seed, two things went wrong that rarely fail Duke.

The first was the Devils’ long-standing specialty – defense. Mike Krzyzewski tried any number of personnel moves, but no one could stop Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum from scoring 30 points and dominating the game.

A second factor was bench play. Duke used guards Andre Dawkins and Quinn Cook along with forward Josh Hairston for a combined 47 minutes off the bench. Although those three players got any number of favorable offensive looks at the basket, they missed 13 of 18 field-goal attempts.

Against an opponent that should have been at an overwhelming depth deficit, Duke’s bench just was not effective enough to capitalize.

There were extenuating issues, primarily forward Ryan Kelly’s injury, but improvement in on-ball defense and bench production likely will be as important as the point-guard situation.

If all three mesh _ improved defense, dependable bench and impressive floor leadership by Cook and Tyler Thornton – the Blue Devils will not be ousted in their first NCAA game two years straight.

Although the absence of Austin Rivers obviously creates questions about scoring, it’s possible Duke’s perimeter defense will improve simply because that aspect of the game wasn’t always his first priority.

Krzyzewski hasn’t had a true inside eraser since 2006. But in most of the seasons since Williams, the perimeter defense has been among the best nationally and a committee of bigs has kept most opponents honest in the paint.

Last season generally was an exception to that combination even the team won 27 games and went 13-3 in the ACC. With Kelly and Mason Plumlee, the interior defense should be above average but only if the perimeter tightens.

Then there’s the depth issue, which is less predictable given the decision by Dawkins to sit out the season.

Against an 18-game league schedule and with non-league games against Kentucky, Ohio State and a Thanksgiving tournament, the Devils are going to need a fair amount of help from a litany of inexperienced players.

That group _ Marshall Plumlee, Amile Jefferson, Alex Murphy and Rasheed Sulaimon _ should have a high ceiling if not early, then certainly by mid-February.

Duke will be tougher if improvement comes only one front, be it perimeter defense or a stronger bullpen. But if both develop into assets, the Lehigh game will be remembered as a productive reality check.

Tudor: 919-829-8946

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