DURHAM — During the past month, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has frequently mentioned in postgame press conferences that his team has improved significantly on defense.
The numbers back up his eye test.
After the current low point of the season a 91-90 escape on Nov. 24 against Vermont at home in which the Catamounts (now 3-8 against Division-I competition) shot 64.8 percent from the field the Blue Devils were ranked 177th out of 351 Division-I teams in adjusted defensive efficiency (103.5, the number of points per 100 possessions they would allow against an average offense).
In a little over a month, Duke has improved, lowering that figure to 96.6 good for 48th best in the country. And that improvement hasnt come by accident.
The No. 7 Blue Devils (10-2) will welcome Notre Dame (9-4) to the ACC at 4 p.m. at the Joyce Center Saturday on CBS, and they will do so with renewed confidence in their ability to get stops. The first step to improving on that side of the ball is talking. It sounds deceptively simple, but its a habit that will come in handy on the road.
Communication is huge for the style of defense that we play, senior guard Andre Dawkins said. The first few games, we just didnt talk enough. Wed lose guys or on ball screens, we would get messed up. Weve really focused on talking and talking each other through things. It helps the guy on the ball to hear things, it helps people off the ball to know whats going on.
When asked how he would describe Dukes style of defense, Dawkins said, We want to be aggressive. At the same time, every game plan is a little bit different, whether it be Alabama, where we are plugging a lot on drives, or a team like Elon, where we really want to get out onto shooters and be aggressive. We want to take away other teams strengths and make them do something they dont want to do.
The Blue Devils have defended the 3-point line well all year (currently 12th nationally in 3-point field goal percentage defense) and theyve steadily forced opponents to take more 3s per game against them, playing to their strengths.
Duke has also shown an ability to focus on and limit a teams dominant player. Most notably, the Blue Devils held Michigan guard Nik Stauskas, who was averaging 20.3 points per game at the time, to an 0-of-2 shooting performance from the field on Dec. 3, thanks to the work of Tyler Thornton and Matt Jones.
Expect a similar focus on Notre Dame guard Eric Atkins. For the year, Atkins is averaging 13.2 points per game, but Atkins has recently taken on added importance for the Fighting Irish. On Dec. 22, Notre Dame leading scorer Jerian Grant announced he was leaving the school for the spring semester as a result of an academic issue. In the one game since Grants departure an 87-81 overtime home win against Canisius Atkins scored 30 points on 10-of-14 shooting and led the Irish with seven assists.
Its a different team in that Eric has to have the ball in his hands a lot more, Dawkins said.
Another focus for the Blue Devils will undoubtedly be on neutralizing the Irishs size advantage Notre Dames front court of 6-foot-11 Sherman and 6-10 Tom Knight will challenge Duke, which doesnt feature a regular rotation player taller than 6- 9.
Were just going to try to play them before they get the ball, try to get into their legs and try to speed the game up, Rodney Hood said. Were going to try and make it a fast-paced game. Hopefully that will take them out of their game.
That plan will likely carry over to all conference games, as the Blue Devils offense thrives in transition. Duke is tied for first nationally with an average of 1.22 points per possession.
The preparation for this first conference game, though, has been out of the ordinary. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski left Durham midway through the week to attend the funeral for his older brother, Bill, a retired captain in the Chicago fire department. Assistant coaches Jeff Capel and Steve Wojciechowski ran practices in his absence, and Krzyzewski rejoined the team in South Bend Friday evening.
The Blue Devils know what Krzyzewski will focus on once he is back on the sideline. Dawkins made that clear when he was asked if there was any truth to the rumor that Krzyzewski runs the team hard after poor performances.
It depends, Dawkins said with a smile. It can go either way. Yeah, it just depends on whats going on, what hes upset about. If hes upset about offense, I think well be alright. But if hes upset about defense, that can get kind of rough.
Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley