From Kansas to Arizona, Duke showed defensive improvement

lkeeley@newsobserver.comDecember 2, 2013 

Despite leaving without the NIT title, the Blue Devils felt they departed New York a better team than when they arrived.

“I thought we played a lot better tonight than we did against Kansas,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Duke’s 72-66 loss to Arizona. “I think my team has improved.”

The statistics against the Jayhawks and the Wildcats confirm that thought, especially on the defensive end. And Duke will have another opportunity to showcase its improvement, particularly on defense, against another quality opponent Tuesday, when No.22 Michigan (5-2) comes to Cameron Indoor Stadium for a 9:15p.m. tip in the ACC-Big 10 Challenge.

On paper, the matchup against Arizona was not a favorable one for the No.10 Blue Devils (6-2): The Wildcats’ front court is among the tallest in the country. Despite that disadvantage, Duke collected 26.3 percent of available offensive rebounds – a higher mark than against Alabama, Kansas and Davidson. The Wildcats’ defensive rebounding percentage (78.3 percent) was lower than those same three opponents had posted as well.

“That’s a big time front line,” Krzyzewski said. “We don’t practice against that. Two things you can’t practice against if you don’t have (it) are length and quickness. We have quickness, but not length.”

The Blue Devils held Arizona to 1.07 points per possession and an offensive efficiency rating of 107.5, both an improvement over the Kansas game, the only other game similar in terms of quality of opponent (the Jayhawks scored 1.25 points per possession and had an efficiency rating of 125.3).

Michigan, which has dealt with early season health troubles that have affected many of its main players (forwards Glenn Robinson and Mitch McGary and guard Nik Stauskas) enters the game ranked 34th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to statistician Ken Pomery, and 19th in adjusted defensive efficiency.

The Arizona game marked the first time this year that offense was somewhat of a struggle for Duke – the shots the Blue Devils wanted, and took, simply didn’t fall quite as often as they normally do (the .431 shooting percentage tied a season-low). It was the first time in eight games that Duke failed to average at least a point per possession (0.99). Jabari Parker, the centerpiece of the Duke offense, had an off-night, shooting 7-of-21 (.333) a low in his eight-game career.

“He had a number of shots go in and out, and he has to keep shooting them,” Krzyzewski said. “We’re not going to win unless Jabari and Rodney (Hood) shoot the ball.”

When he’s on the floor, Parker uses 32.77 percent of Duke possessions – only Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart (33.08) uses more among players on major-conference teams. Hood ranks second on the team in terms of usage (23.1 percent ) – which is just as Krzyzewski intended the offense to run.

Like every other coach that has gone against the Blue Devils this year, Arizona’s Sean Miller was impressed with what he saw from Parker.

“One of the things that’s really striking is how big he is,” Miller said. “He gets the ball in and around the basket. He’s a load, yet he’s so talented away from the goal. And I’m sure as Duke’s cohesiveness starts the come their way, that he’ll make the other players on his team even better than he already does.”

That’s the hope for Duke, that as the team plays more together, the Blue Devils will become more efficient on both ends of the floor. In the meantime, though, pollsters are more focused on the results, and there’s no way around the fact that Duke has looked shaky in a few wins and lost two games. That combination resulted in the Blue Devils dropping four spots to No. 10, just barely keeping alive a streak of 118 consecutive weeks ranked in the AP top 10. That dates back more than six years, to Nov. 26, 2007.

Also on the line against Michigan is a streak that dates to the beginning of this century – Duke has not lost a nonconference home game since Feb. 26, 2000, an 83-82 loss to St. John’s.

A little improvement from Duke, like Krzyzewski saw in New York, would go a long way to keep both of those streaks intact.

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley

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