Duke: Title hopes rest on a defense that doesn’t rest

lkeeley@newsobserver.comMarch 14, 2013 

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Duke guard Tyler Thornton (3) kicks the ball out as Clemson forward/center Devin Booker (31) defends in the second half of play. Duke beat Clemson 68-40 at Cameron Indoor Stadium Tuesday Jan.8, 2013.

CHUCK LIDDY — cliddy@newsobserver.com Buy Photo

— Duke values defensive success as much as any team in the country. Taking charges and slapping the floor are as synonymous with the Blue Devils as Mike Krzyzewski. Measuring defensive success, though, is not an absolute science, not even for Duke.

“Defensive success…” Mason Plumlee said to himself as he looked up in thought, trying to put it into words.

Plumlee and his teammates offered a few different metrics. Some were technical, such as holding their man and an opposing team to below their scoring average, while others were less scientific, such as making their defensive assignment breathe harder than normal. The Blue Devils also tie their defensive success to how well they execute the game plan, which calls for different offensive elements (in recent weeks, lay-ups) to be taken away.

Advanced statistician Ken Pomeroy has come up with arguably the most reliable way to measure defensive success: adjusted defensive efficiency. It’s calculated by taking a team’s points allowed per 100 possessions and then adjusting for factors such as quality of opposing offenses, the game’s location and how recently the matchup was played. The goal: to measure and compare team defenses on an equal playing field. The conclusion: to achieve postseason success, a team needs an elite defense.

Of the 40 Final Four teams since 2003, just five have been ranked lower than No. 24 in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency. As of Thursday, Duke was ranked No 24.

So, if the Blue Devils were looking for something to focus on during the ACC tournament, which begins for them at 7 p.m. Friday, defense would be a good pick.

“At Duke, defense is the biggest thing. We definitely take our defense seriously,” Quinn Cook said. “Defense wins championships.”

Indeed, it does.

It doesn’t take advanced stats to know that Duke’s defense is significantly better than it was last season – when Pomeroy had it ranked No. 70 – especially on the perimeter. The Blue Devils’ guards, Cook, Tyler Thornton, Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon, have done a better job pressuring the ball and forcing shooters to take contested 2s instead of open 3s.

“You’re never going to shut anyone down or shut anyone out, so I measure (success) by making somebody work harder than they want to to get the ball and then score the ball,” said Thornton, Duke’s best defender. “Guys start walking, take plays off, and that’s how you know you’re getting into their legs and frustrating them a little bit.”

Thornton also said defense requires “a little bit of heart and a little bit of toughness.”

“I just try to get into their legs and stay in constant contact,” he said. “A lot of guys, when they play defense, they’re not really physical. I like to get a little bit physical and touch my offensive player that I’m guarding. Like I said, get into their legs a little bit.”

That’s what Thornton, 6-1 and 190 pounds, did while guarding UNC’s Reggie Bullock, who had a considerable size advantage at 6-7, 205 pounds. Thornton was effective, holding Bullock, who averages 14.2 points per game, to just eight, including 0-for-4 from 3.

And it was Thornton who chased down James Michael McAdoo in the lane, preventing him for scoring an uncontested lay-up and sending him to the free throw line instead. When he made one of his two shots, Duke still led 14-1.

“We may take away from thing from a team and force them to beat us another way,” Plumlee said. “No lay-ups has been an emphasis, and then a lot of teams have shooters, so you chase them off the 3 and make then take contested 2s.”

Duke put on a defensive clinic against the Tar Heels in the first half. The Blue Devils are hopeful that kind of improvement is sustainable with the return of Ryan Kelly, whom Krzyzewski has called the organizer of the defense. He hasn’t made a statistical impact on the Blue Devils’ defense – yet. But there is still time for the unit as a whole to improve before the month’s main event: the NCAA tournament.

As the Blue Devils know, defense wins championships.

Keeley 919-829-4556; Twitter @laurakeeley

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