All year, whenever Duke would struggle, like clockwork, the players would point back to defense.
We need to defend better, they said after scoring 59 points in a loss to Clemson and 66 points in the loss at North Carolina (and every other game, really). Mike Krzyzewski built this program on the foundation of suffocating man-to-man defense, so it’s not a huge surprise to hear this team parroting that refrain.
But Saturday night, the Tar Heels shot 59.6 percent from the field—and lost by 12 points. Duke won 93-81, in dominant fashion at times, because Jabari Parker (and Rodney Hood, to a lesser extent) drove down the lane with authority, determined to score.
Parker poured in a career-high 30 points on a 10-of-17 effort form the field (he went 2-4 from 3 and 8-of-9 from the free throw line as well). In the 238-game history of Duke-UNC, no freshman has ever scored more points against the Tar Heels.
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Parker was ridiculously efficient, scoring 32.3 percent of Duke’s points while finishing just 28 percent of the Blue Devils’ offensive possessions (that’s good for an offensive rating of 160, according to Ken Pomeroy).
"He was going to the basket, he was feeling it," Hood said of Parker. "We expect more, to be honest. Like Coach said, 30 is probably not enough. We expect him to do that every single game from here on out."
If Duke gets Parker the ball more—for the season, he has finished 31.4 percent of Duke’s offensive possessions, so his usage rate Saturday was lower than normal—he will probably score more. Whenever he received the ball Saturday, he looked to drive, displaying an aggression that has been lacking at times. Parker is quick to defer praise and attention to teammates after the game—that’s just his personality, who he is.
He needs to ditch that habit on the court, though.
"We’ve been telling him as a player that he needs to go out there and dominate the game because nobody in the country can guard him," Rasheed Sulaimon said. And that’s what he did."
"No more freshman, I don’t like being in that category anymore because my team needs me more than just an 18-year-old," Parker said. “They need somebody with experience throughout the whole game, throughout the whole contest. It’s time to grow up."
That 160 offensive rating for Parker was his second-highest on the year—his best mark, 170, came in the first game of the year, against Davidson. That 111-77 win still remains Duke’s best offensive performance to date, in my opinion—I was ready to reserve a room at a Marriott in the Dallas area for the Final Four right then. But the season hasn’t quite played out that way, with more inconsistencies than I could have every predicted back on Nov. 8.
But if Parker and Hood score like they did against Davidson, and against UNC Saturday, I can see myself headed to Dallas after all.
Hood scored 24 points on an 8-of-13 night from the field as well. He said his role is to tag-team with Parker, have his back when he’s not hitting. The key for Hood is the not let his confidence dip when he misses a few shots. He said it helped when Tyler Thornton emphasized to him to just keep shooting—a good example of senior leadership.
"Sometimes when he misses he let’s that get to him," Krzyzewski said of Hood. "He thinks it’s a mistake, and it’s not. Tonight he didn’t play like that. He’s really good. Those two kids (Parker, too) were very good tonight."
Hood didn’t have an explanation for why, at times, Duke has struggled offensively this year. He just knows they’re clicking right now.
"We’re a completely different team. Offensively, I think it’s so hard to guard both of us at the same time," he said of himself and Parker, "And when you’ve got guys like Andre (Dawkins), Sheed (Sulaimon) and Quinn (Cook) that can chip in, offensively, we could score in the 80s, 90s every single game."
Then Hood couldn’t help himself.
"Defensively, we’ve still got to make improvements, that’s where we can win. That’s the way we’re going to win in the postseason."
With all due respect, I disagree. From 2003-2012, only five Final Four teams had an adjusted defensive efficiency rating below 24. But last year, Wichita State (25) and Michigan (48) managed to make it that far without an elite defensive. The Wolverines made the national title game thanks to their No. 1-ranked offense, according to Ken Pomeroy.
This year, Duke ranks as the nation’s second-most efficient team on offensive, scoring 124 points per 100 possessions against an average defense. On the defensive side of the ball, the Blue Devils rank 82nd nationally, surrendering 99.9 points per 100 possessions to an average offense.
Best to play to your strength. Score more points than the other team.
***Hood unintentionally brought up one of the more humorous Carolina stereotypes after the game. He had no idea. So, for the record:
"I got tired of walking around Durham and people people screaming Carolina at me," he said about losing in Chapel Hill. "I walked through Walmart and stuff like that."
***Saturday night was the first time we had seen or heard from Krzyzewski since his health scare at Wake Forest. Duke athletics said after the game that it was a bout of lightheadedness that brought Krzyzewski to a knee in a timeout huddle early in the second half, and that it was the same thing that was still bothering him after the game, causing him to miss his postgame press conference. Krzyzewski said Saturday that it wasn’t lightheadedness, but he didn’t specify what the problem actually was. He did talk a little about the tests he underwent at Duke hospital later that night and Thursday morning.
"I got all checked out," he said. "My head, not psychologically. They said—I wish they wouldn’t have said this—that I have the brain of a 20-year-old. I’d rather have the brain of a 30-year-old. And then the next day, they did all sorts of tests and stress tests with dye and all that, and they said I have the heart of a 20-year-old. I said, ‘Well, something’s wrong. I probably have an 80-year-old something going on.’ I feel good. it’s just been an emotional two months for me, and I think that’s it. I have to manage that better."
Now, come on, people, he pretty much set the table for my parting question. He was in as good as mood as he has been all year, telling stories about losing by more than 30 to Wake Forest in the 1982 ACC Tournament in front of about four people who stuck around for the late Friday game (Duke has that slot again this year, by the way. Get excited for a 9:30 p.m. tip this Friday).
So when Duke spokesman Jon Jackson called out, "anything else?" I asked what I thought was an obvious inquiry.
"Did they tell you you have the hair of a 30-year-old?"
"I will tell you this—I do not color my hair," Krzyzewski said, after pausing and laughing, kind of. "I do not. Now, I’m losing my hair, which a lot of people do. But I do not color my hair. I don’t. That’s a myth. My buddies would kill me."
Feel free to stop reading now, but in my expert opinion—I think I got my first highlights at 16—there’s no way Krzyzewski colors his hair. It is a little gray, actually, especially around the edges. And there’s gray throughout—not a lot, though, and that’s why it looks jet black on TV. But if you happen to be sitting right next to him at the roundtable portion of next year’s preseason ACC media day, take a look, and you’ll see the gray for yourself. That salt-and-pepper color palette isn’t coming from a box or from some goop mix in a salon.