After Miami put on a how-to-shred-Duke's-defense clinic in its 90-74 win Tuesday night, Hurricanes coach Jim Larrañaga broke the game plan down in simple terms.
"Our goal was to set at least one, if not two or three or four ball screens on every possession because our guards are best when they're on the attack," he said. "And the ball screen gives them a chance to get free just a little bit and attack the paint."
"Our guys are like, you say 5-(foot-)11, that must be in high heels. But what they're good at is dribbling and shooting. So, if you go behind that ball screen, they could hit a 3, like Angel (Rodriguez) hit two in a row there. If you fight over the ball screen, then they have a chance to attack the big man. They did that and got fouled. And once they get a sense that they can do it, then they share that confidence."
No. 6 Louisville (15-2, 3-1 ACC) has similarly small, quick guards, a pair that is arguably more skilled than the Hurricanes featured Tuesday. Senior Chris Jones and sophomore Terry Rozier will be a handful for Duke in pick-and-roll situations. Since the start of ACC play, Jones is averaging 17.5 points per game, shooting 49 percent from the field and 50 percent from 3. Rozier leads the Cardinals with an average of 18.5 points per game in conference play (46.8 percent from the field).
Neither Tyus Jones nor Quinn Cook is particularly long or tall, and they've struggled of late to stay in front of opposing guards. Duke's pressure man-to-man defense is based on the guards not getting beat off the dribble - if a driver does get by his man easily, then it's a 5-on-4 situation. Overplaying a passing lane, as the Blue Devils' other defenders on the perimeter have been doing, also opens up a free driving lane from the opposition.
But even when Duke's guards have stayed with the dribbler, ball screens have given them major issues, as Larrañaga indicated. Jahlil Okafor struggles to defend in pick-and-roll situations, and he has been caught flat-footed often of late. Even when he's not drawn away from the basket into a screen, Okafor hasn't shown much enthusiasm for defending the rim - which has caused Duke's defense to look eerily similar to the mess it was last year.
"We found the open man, like Tonye Jerkiri's last basket came - Manu (Lecomte) drove on the big and dumped it to Tonye, and he dunked it," Larrañaga said, diagramming the bucket that put Miami up 85-68 with 1:27 remaining. "So that's a good feeling for all of them, knowing that the strategy was working."
Louisville coach Rick Pitino won the in-game chess match last time the two teams met in the 2013 Elite Eight (the Cardinals went on to win the national title that season). A game that was tied at 42 early in the second half ended in an 85-63 blowout win for Louisville after Pitino instructed his guards to set higher screens on the perimeter and for his post players to screen Duke's big men down low, preventing them from getting up the court to pick up the driver.
The longtime coach surely hasn't forgotten about that plan.
After the stunning loss to Miami, Cook struggled to put words to Duke's defensive issues. When asked if opposing guards were getting in the lane too often, he said he didn't know and then proceeded to think out loud and answer in the affirmative.
"Y'all see it like us. I don't know," he said. "People are hitting shots, getting in the lane and doing whatever. We're not playing with a sense of urgency. We've played against great guards, (Wisconsin's) Traevon Jackson and (Connecticut's) Ryan Boatright. We've played against the best guards. We're just struggling right now."
It won't be easy for Duke to re-discover its nonconference mojo on the road against the fourth-most efficient defense in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy's rankings. But that's what the Blue Devils need to do to avoid their first three-game losing streak since the 2006-07 season and further burying whatever remaining confidence they have in themselves.