The cause-and-effect seems clear enough.
N.C. State and Miami double-teamed Duke big man Jahlil Okafor. Both beat the Blue Devils.
Not quite, says North Carolina coach Roy Williams, who knows the Tar Heels will have to slow Okafor, the ACC’s leading scorer, to knock off the Blue Devils on Wednesday night in Durham.
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See the problem with the “just double-team Okafor” wash-rinse-repeat strategy is Duke is much more than just one low-post scorer.
“They’ve got four guys in double figures, so you’ve got to guard everybody,” Williams said.
Duke is the only ACC team with four players who average double figures: Okafor (18.2), guard Quinn Cook (14.8), forward Justise Winslow (11.4) and guard Tyus Jones (11.3).
Okafor, a 6-11, 270-pound freshman, has been Duke’s primary scorer and leads the ACC in field goal percentage (66.5) and offensive rebounds (4.0).
The Blue Devils lead the ACC, and rank eighth nationally, with 80.3 points per game. Their field goal percentage, 49.7, ranks second in the ACC and fifth nationally.
“They have the best balance of any team in college basketball,” Williams said.
True enough, just ask Virginia. The Cavaliers, the best defensive team in the ACC and the best in the country at doubling the post, saw their perfect season go up in smoke in the second half of their 69-63 loss to the Blue Devils on Jan. 31.
Doubling Okafor, with a second post defender (just like N.C. State and Miami did), worked right up until it didn’t.
Virginia led 45-34 with 10 minutes left in the game when Duke went unconscious from 3-point range. The Blue Devils made their last five 3-pointers, after starting 1 of 12, and pulled away for a six-point win.
Okafor’s contributions were somewhat modest by his standards – 10 points, nine rebounds and five turnovers – but it was an important game in the big man’s development.
The losses to N.C. State and Miami came before the Virginia game, so it showed an ability to adjust. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has also helped Okafor by using wing Matt Jones more, as an additional 3-point shooter, and taking forward Amile Jefferson off the floor.
With Jones on the floor, and Winslow as the second forward, teams that double Okafor with a second forward (or post-to-post) are put in a pick-your-poison situation with Duke’s 3-point options.
Williams is familiar with Duke’s 3-point arsenal. The rivals have played 11 times in the past five seasons. Duke has won eight of those games; it shot 38.3 percent from 3 in those eight wins and just 24.6 percent in the three losses.
So leaving an open shooter might not be UNC’s best move, even if this Duke team isn’t as reliant on the 3 as previous versions. Williams will change defenses, but he isn’t prone to double the post. But as the UNC coach said Tuesday, “You have to make some allowances” for Okafor.
Okafor has shown he can be contained by a double team. Seven teams have made a clear effort to double Okafor as a strategy – Connecticut, Wake Forest, N.C. State, Miami, Pittsburgh, Virginia and Louisville.
Okafor’s points (14.9 per game) and field goal percentage (63.9) are down in those seven games, compared with the other 18 (19.4 ppg and 67.3 percent). Duke is also 5-2 in those games, compared with 17-1 in the others.
Sophomore forward Kennedy Meeks is the Tar Heels’ most logical choice to body up Okafor, with junior Brice Johnson’s length as a change-of-pace.
Johnson said Tuesday it would take a team effort to slow Okafor.
“You have to be sound defensively on him and hope he misses it,” Johnson said.
The way Johnson figures, UNC’s best shot is to get the ball out of Okafor’s hands.
“You want the rest of them to beat you,” Johnson said. “He’s going to get his, but he can’t just beat you by himself. He’s just one player; there are four other guys on the court.
“Hopefully, he’ll kick it out and they won’t make that many shots.”