Duke’s lineup featuring three freshmen who are projected as 2019 first-round NBA picks means that the Blue Devils should have the matchup advantage in nearly every game this season.
As the young Blue Devils (2-0) head into their third game of the season Wednesday night against Eastern Michigan, they are going through the process of learning how to play offense against different types of defenses.
A Kentucky team also armed with future NBA talent attempted to guard the Blue Devils on Nov. 6 by challenging them on the perimeter in man-to-man sets. The result was a 118-84 Duke win.
Against Duke on Nov. 11, Army played man-to-man but added a wrinkle that called for its players to pack the middle of the court as a way to cut off driving lanes. It worked for a while, and the Black Knight trailed Duke by six with 12 minutes to play. But the Blue Devils ended up hitting 15 3-pointers and won 94-72.
On Wednesday, No. 1-ranked Duke plays an Eastern Michigan team that will present an even different defense. The Eagles (3-0) employ a 2-3 zone defense, similar to what Duke will face in ACC play against Syracuse.
Eagles coach Rob Murphy was an assistant at Syracuse under Jim Boeheim from 2004-11 before becoming coach at Eastern Michigan.
Virginia’s pack-line defense, which Duke will face on Jan. 19, is also designed to prevent dribble-drives to the basket and disrupt passing lanes.
Duke freshmen starters forwards Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cameron Reddish and guard Tre Jones thrive using a 5-out motion offense against man-to-man defenses, so a zone defense that clogs the middle and forces jump shots will test different skills.
“We’ve just got to play against different defenses and different styles and keep evolving,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
Against Kentucky, Duke shot 54.4 percent and scored 60 of its 118 points in the lane. The Blue Devils made 12 3-pointers on 26 attempts, meaning 32.3 percent of their shots were behind the 3-point line.
Army’s defensive play, according to Black Knights head coach Jimmy Allen, was to force Duke outside.
“We were trying to keep them out of the paint,” Allen said, “from getting some easy baskets inside and force them to take some shots from the perimeter, trying to get them to have to make a few passes in a possession. I thought our guys did a really good job of that.”
Duke shot 48.6 percent against Army, scoring only 36 of its 94 points in the lane. The Blue Devils made 15 of 36 3-point attempts, taking exactly half their shots from behind the 3-point line.
“They played the gaps a lot more,” Jones said. “Kentucky really pressured us more but they plugged the gaps and waited for us to come to them more. That made for more open threes but less twos we were taking. With how fast they pushed, that meant long rebounds and quick baskets for them.”
Duke shot 46.3 percent in the first half and had a stretch of three consecutive possessions with turnovers that irked Krzyzewski into calling a timeout.
“We took low percentage shots in the first half a lot and we made turnovers that ended up points for them,” Krzyzewski said. “You know, we have an 11-point lead at 36-25 and we dribble behind our back twice, get it stolen, and they score five points on it. Part of that is you feel you are better and you can just do something on your own, and in the second half, we played together more on the offensive end.”
Against Army, Duke made 51.7 percent of its shots in the second half to finally pull away.
“Their defense was really kind of a match-up man, in other words, they clogged driving lanes,” Krzyzewski said. “They came back, even though they’re man, they switched a lot, always open, you could make passes on the perimeter, but when you put the ball on the floor, there was more traffic. One of the teams in Canada did that to us, so again, you’re learning to play with that.”
Eastern Michigan will present size with its 2-3 zone. The Eagles, a 22-13 team last season, return 6-10, 241-pound senior center James Thompson and 6-9, 212-pound senior forward Elijah Minnie.
Thompson was an all-Mid-American Conference first-team selection last season and the league’s defensive player of the year. Minnie led the Eagles with 16.8 points while grabbing 6.1 rebounds per game last season.
The Eagles also have a senior point guard in the 6-2, 178-pound Paul Jackson, who averaged 14.9 points and 4.6 assists last season.
So Duke will face its third different defense in three games plus take the court against players with far more experience.
No. 1 Duke is expected to continue winning. But getting there will reveal plenty about how its team is coming together.