Duke’s young team got better - and showed togetherness, grit against Eastern Michigan

Three games into the season, one sluggish half is the only subpar performance Duke has produced.

This Blue Devils team is young, but it plays hard and has already shown the propensity to learn.

These are scary things for the rest of college basketball because Duke only serves to get better as its four freshmen starters add experience.

Duke wiped out Eastern Michigan 84-46, throwing down 14 dunks in a performance that was as dominating as it was emphatic.

“In the first half, we played so hard,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We played at a pace that’s different than a pace they’re (Eastern Michigan) really good at. It kind of snowballed for them after that. The intensity was excellent.”

The Eagles presented Duke with a 2-3 zone that featured 6-11 junior center Boubacar Toure, 6-10 senior center James Thompson and 6-9 senior forward Elijah Minnie. Duke spent plenty of time getting out in transition for baskets before Eastern Michigan could set up its zone.

But even when facing the zone, Duke went around and over it to score many of those dunks and layups.

“Their size and athleticism bonded well,” said Eastern Michigan coach Rob Murphy, a former Syracuse assistant. “The game plan to get the ball into the high post with a quick cross-the-lane lob pass was great. They did a great job of driving the dead areas of our zones before our forwards could bump and our guards could loop and cut them off. Once you penetrate our zone, or any zone, you have guys at the rim who are able to catch lobs, you can have success.”

Duke’s two biggest scorers, freshmen forwards Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, once again lead the way.

Williamson made 10 of 12 shots to score 21 points while grabbing nine rebounds. He’s surpassed the 20-point mark in all three of his collegiate games.

So, too, has Barrett. Though he struggled from the field, making 8 of 21 shots and missing all four of his 3-pointers, the 6-7 Canadian finished with 20 points and six rebounds.

Duke’s plan when facing the 2-3 zone was to have Williamson or Barrett cut to the middle so they could take an entry pass, turn and then create a scoring chance. That happened plenty as Duke shot 46.8 percent despite making just 5 of 24 3-pointers (20.8 percent). The Blue Devils assisted on 23 of their 36 made field goals.

“We knew that they were really long and athletic on defense,” Jones said. “They have a lot of really tall guys. If we kept attacking, we were just trying to make them tired. They were running the floor a lot and we were getting into the big men’s bodies and try to get them tired.”

Duke put on more than just a show of spectacular offense. The Blue Devils limited Eastern Michigan to 31 percent shooting. The Eagles turned the ball over 20 times with Duke credited with 11 steals and 14 blocked shots.

The Blue Devils suffocated Eastern Michigan early, throwing out a 1-2-2 press that covered three-quarters of the court.

“They surprised us with that, which affected us,” Murphy said.

Even while taking control of the game and building a 48-13 lead at the half, the Blue Devils could still be found diving and sliding on the court to grab a loose ball and create a turnover.

“I thought this was probably the best game where we talked well on both ends of the court,” Krzyzewski said. “We encouraged one another. I think in the past few days we grew up a bit more as far as communication goes, so really good. We shared the ball well and got every loose ball in the first half. It was really fun to watch, and I’m proud of my guys.”

Duke struggled to shake off Army on Nov. 11, seeing its lead a shrink to 67-61 with just under 12 minutes to play. But playing that first half in less-than-dominating fashion proved to be the exception for the Blue Devils this season.

“It’s always great because I feel like our offense will be there, so now it’s just playing hard defense,” Williamson said. “We feel like our defense will lead our offense. We feel like this was a much better effort (than against Army).”

About the only negative thing to be taken from the win is freshman Cam Reddish’s mild health concern. He scored three points while playing 12 minutes, all in the first half.

The 6-7 freshman forward didn’t play in Duke’s three-game exhibition tour in Canada in August because of a strained groin. Krzyzewski said if the game against Eastern Michigan had been more competitive, he’d have sent Reddish back in because the muscle was only slightly strained and was not more seriously injured.

Duke’s next game is Monday against San Diego State in the Maui Invitational quarterfinals at Lahaina, Hawaii. Krzyzewski said everything points toward Reddish being fine by then after resting for a few days.

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