In Matt Jones’s ideal world, Duke wouldn’t have to resort to playing zone defense. And that is the word he used—resort.
But that’s what it took for Duke to beat Yale in an 80-61 game that was quite competitive into the second half, when the Bulldogs ran into foul trouble and struggled to solve the zone puzzle.
“For me, personally, I’ve always hung my hat on stopping the man in front of me,” Jones said. “And being the captain of this team, I want them to take what our captains have hung their hats on, and that’s the defensive end. I don’t want to have to get stuck playing matchup zone and things like that. At the end of the day, we were made to play man-to-man. And we have to hone into that.”
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s view of the zone, though, is a bit different than that of his junior captain’s. Krzyzewski gave his reflective, honest assessment of his young, work-in-progress team, saying that the man offense of Duke’s last two opponents—Georgetown and Yale—was better than Duke’s man defense. And the Blue Devils would have gotten beat, Krzyzewski said, if they stayed in man-to-man against the Bulldogs.
Yale did have a 36-34 lead before a timeout with 1:07 left in the first half. Out of that break Duke went to the 1-3-1, with Brandon Ingram up top and Jones under the basket. The result was three straight steals and four Duke points to take a 38-36 halftime lead. The 1-3-1 was back in the second half, too, until the Blue Devils had a comfortable lead.
“We cannot play man-to-man with this team like we have in the past,” Krzyzewski said. “But we can play it better. And then it will have to be a combination of defenses for us. And that’s what this team needs. So, we’re going to do that.
“We have practiced 1-3-1 a lot, and we have personnel that fits it, especially when you have Brandon, Amile and Marshall in. If you get that on one side, that’s a lot to look over. We’re just trying to figure it out.”
The difference in Yale’s success on the offensive end from the first to the second half, from facing the man-to-man to the 1-3-1 zone, was stark. Through the first 19 minutes, the Bulldogs (3-2) out-hustled the Blue Devils, driving through the lane at will and collecting more offensive rebounds (nine) than Duke did defensive rebounds (eight) on the same glass. Of their 36 first-half points, 72 percent of them (26) came in the paint, where Yale was at a distinct height and size disadvantage.
In the second half—and it should be noted that forward Brandon Sherrod fouled out with 11:15 left in the game, with the Bulldogs down by 10—Yale had just 10 points in the paint. The Bulldogs’ field goal percentage went down from 48.5 percent to 30 percent.
“I’m not happy that we have to resort to that, but at the same time, it has helped us win,” Jones said of the zone. “But I know that there are teams scouting. It’s not going to help us win every game. We have to look ourselves in the mirror and say, we need stops in man.”
Ingram had his finest game, on both ends of the floor, of his young career. The freshman scored 15 points on a 7-for-16 shooting night (43.8 percent) and also recorded five rebounds, three assists, one block and a steal. His length did force the Bulldogs into some dumb passes that were picked off by Duke’s wing players, Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen.
“When he is energetic and active like he was tonight, his arms are really long,” Jones said of Ingram. “He makes you lob the ball. And with G and Luke on the wings, they are athletic enough to come get it.”
It has been a tough week for Jones off the floor, as his grandfather, the main male figure in his life, died Monday. He was still able to lead Duke with 17 points, shooting 7-of-11 from the floor. He also led the team in pride, misguided or not, with his resistance to the zone and stubborn adherence to the belief that the Duke program was made on man-to-man defense, so that’s what this team should do, too.
“We can’t forget what makes us,” he said.
Krzyzewski, when he heard Jones’s opinion, offered his different take, that the goal was to win, regardless of the type of defense. And even though Duke was thoroughly outplayed in the first half, he didn’t fault his team’s effort, saying he thought they were tired from last week’s games against Kentucky in Chicago and VCU and Georgetown in New York. Inconsistencies are going to be a reality for this team, Krzyzewski said, at least for the foreseeable future. These Blue Devils will need more of an emotional investment from him than last year’s team did—more positivity, more energy, more everything, he said, as he and his staff are the stabilizing element.
“You have to do what your group needs. My group needs that,” he said. “So, I told them, I’m there every second, a hug, a yell, whatever it is. And my staff is there. We have a lot of growing up to do. That will be a cool thing, to grow with this team.”