The Duke Blue Devils coaching staff was rightly concerned about San Diego State’s length and experience heading into Sunday’s game in the NCAA tournament round of 32.
Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow reminded all those watching that there is no substitute for talent.
Duke’s two projected NBA draft lottery picks put together a highlight tape during the 68-49 win against the Aztecs that will have NBA scouts smiling. Length and experience are nice, but high-level talent and athleticism are better.
There aren’t many 6-foot-11, 270-pound centers who can take defenders off the dribble at the 3-point line and finish at the rim. And there aren’t many wing players who can nail 3s, muscle through defenders to get to the basket and get so high on blocked shots that their hair swishes the rim and their hand completely engulfs the ball, deflecting it to a teammate who then starts a fast break that ends with a 3-pointer.
“Even though I see it on a daily basis, it’s still just amazing, some of the things we do,” Grayson Allen said of his teammates’ athletic prowess.
Okafor finished with a game-high 26 points on 12-of-16 shooting. His new, no-dribble free-throw routine, straight from the Mason Plumlee playbook, went a perfect 2 for 2, too. Winslow’s line was a true testament to the range of his athletic gifts: 13 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks.
“I know from first hand in practice that he is like a freight train,” Marshall Plumlee said of Winslow.
San Diego State is one of the best defensive teams in the country, ranking fourth nationally in statistician Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency rankings (and sixth in field goal percentage defense).
Entering the game, the Aztecs had held 40 straight opponents to less than 50 percent shooting from the floor (Duke shot 54.5 percent). San Diego State starts four forwards, all long and lean and at least 6-7.
“Their length didn’t really bother us that much,” Winslow said. “But it’s something you take into account when you are game-planning for a team.
“When you’re playing someone with a lot of length, (you’re) just trying to get into their bodies and get them off balance,” Winslow said. “On some of my drives, that’s what I tried to do, create the contact and get them off balance. Then they can’t really use their length as well.”
That’s the freight-train mode Plumlee described, when Winslow grabs a rebound and is determined to finish at the opposite rim.
“It just takes us to a whole other level,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Winslow’s elevated play.
Still, for the matchup nightmare Winslow presents (especially at power forward), defense will always start with Okafor for Duke’s opponents.
Krzyzewski said Okafor is pretty much over his foot injury from the first matchup with North Carolina on Feb. 18, and his teammates could feel that he was more comfortable in his second take at the NCAA tournament.
Okafor showed off his full complement of offensive moves: the spin, the little hook shot, the short jumper, the 12-foot jumper, one-handed finish, and, perhaps most impressively, his ability to beat guys in isolation off the dribble and finish at the rim.
“I played against big players before but I haven’t played against anybody that big, with that skill set,” said the Aztecs’ Skylar Spencer, the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. “It was kind of hard to fight with him and not get called for a foul.”
“He’s playing his butt off right now,” Duke guard Tyus Jones said of Okafor. “He really is. He is bringing out all the tools. It’s fun to watch when he is playing like that.”
It’s fun to watch the Blue Devils, and they’re having fun doing it. It got to the point in the second half that Krzyzewski stopped calling plays – he just let his guys follow their instincts.
Those, like Duke’s talent level, are head-and-shoulders above what most opponents can muster.