This Duke team is adept at recording steals. That means bad things for opponents

Seeing No. 3 Duke rack up 19 steals against an overwhelmed Stetson team wasn’t surprising given the Hatters are an 1-8 squad.

Considering the Blue Devils had 11 steals while blasting Indiana (6-2) five nights earlier provides better contrast.

Now add in that Duke already has four games with double digits in steals, among its first eight games, and a pattern develops.

These Blue Devils (7-1), who are averaging 10 steals per game, thrive when they use pressure defense to fuel their high-powered transition offense.

“We’ve been working on (defense) all week and it kind of showed today,” Duke freshman R.J. Barrett said after the Stetson game. “It’s really fun when you just get out on the fast break. Everybody’s dunking, hitting threes. It’s fun to play. Defense wins championships. We know that if we’ve got our defense down and our offense is really good, it’ll take care of itself.”

Duke has been a strong defensive team all season. The Blue Devils are currently No. 3 nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency ratings, allowing 91.5 per 100 possessions.

Duke’s weakest defensive performance of the season, naturally, came against the best team it faced -- top-ranked Gonzaga. The Bulldogs scored 1.24 points per possession and turned the ball over just 11 times while beating Duke 89-87 in the Maui Invitational title game on Nov. 21. Duke had a season-low five steals.

But that doesn’t mean the Blue Devils impressive season defensive totals are the result of fattening up on poor teams like Stetson, the victims of a 113-49 beatdown Saturday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Yes, Duke’s 19 steals against the Hatters were the most its recorded in game since March 2006.

But Duke had 10 steals while beating Kentucky 118-84 at the Champions Classic on Nov. 6. Indiana suffered a 90-69 loss last Tuesday night as the Blue Devils stole the ball four times in the game’s first four minutes while jumping to an 11-4 lead on the way to the comfortable win.

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Steals, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, lead to easy points for his team.

“The best way to have transition is to turn someone over with a live ball because you can have the numerical advantage,” Krzyzewski said. “If you get it off of a defensive board, you may not have the numerical advantage, but you have mismatches. A guy who was supposed to guard you is guarding someone else. It forces the team to talk more. The more we get of that (steals), the better we’re going to be.”

Generating steals with defensive pressure has been a focus for the Blue Devils in practice since they returned from the Maui Invitational. Duke’s three games in three days in Hawaii completed a season-opening stretch of six games in 15 days. Half of those games were against teams ranked in the Associated Press top 10.

That schedule didn’t allow for as much much practice time for team development because preparation for the next opponent was necessary.

Duke is currently playing a stretch of six games in 29 days, which presents a good chance to hone important aspects of its game in practice.

“When you have a younger or more inexperienced group, habits are not completely there unless you’re doing them daily,” Krzyzewski said. “Since we’ve been back (from Hawaii), we’ve been trying to get back into our defensive habits. We’re getting there. We’re good, and we’re going to get better as long as we’re healthy because we’re going to keep working at it. These guys have

really good attitudes.”

Duke getting better recording steals is a scary thought of its opponents. The Blue Devils are already No. 3 in the nation with steals on 13.1 percent of its opponents’ possessions, according to The national average, covering 353 teams, is 8.8.

While going 29-8 last season to reach the NCAA tournament’s elite eight, Duke was No. 36 nationally in that category at 10.5. in 37 games, the Blue Devils had 11 games with double-digit steal totals. None of them occurred in the ACC or NCAA tournaments.

Following the Gonzaga loss, film review was used to point out areas where this team could improve defensively.

“After the loss we really looked at the tape and tried to get back to what had worked for us earlier,” said Duke junior forward Javin DeLaurier, a team captain along with junior Jake White. “With our team, it really starts with our defense. If we are playing defense we are going to be playing at our best. We’re trying to get back to that as much as possible.”

Zion Williamson leads Duke with 16 steals. Tre Jones and Cam Reddish have 13 each. Barrett has nine. They are all freshmen who have started every game.

Even in their lone loss, this year’s Blue Devils showed the power of starting things with their defense.

Duke trailed Gonzaga by 16 points when Jones scored on a layup and proceeded to steal the Bulldogs’ in-bounds pass and draw a foul. He shook his fists in celebration to the jubilant Duke bench and ignited a comeback that saw Duke tie the game before eventually losing by a basket.

“Guys take pride in playing defense on this team, especially,” DeLaurier said. “It’s been fun. We have a point guard in Tre who has great vision. We have four other guys on the court at all times who can bring the ball up. It just suits us. As athletic as we are, it’s just so much fun getting out there and running after we get a stop.”

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.