After two straight losses, Duke needed a fresh start. Mike Krzyzewski had said after the loss to Miami that he would evaluate his team and make changes. And he meant it.
Duke dusted off a 2-3 matchup zone they had learned earlier in the season (but never tried in a game) and used it for the majority of the time against Louisville, and the result was a 63-52 win over the Cardinals. The week that began with two losses to unranked teams ended with a road win against the No. 6 team in the country. The victory gives Krzyzewski 998 for his career.
“Before you’re critical, constructively, with your team, you say, ‘Am I putting my team in the best position to be successful offensively and defensively?’ ” Krzyzewski said. “Because I’m not a system-oriented guy, I’m constantly working on that.
“Our offense has negatively influenced our defense. And today, giving them something a little bit new, where they had each other’s back, helped them, even though we’re still not there offensively.”
The No. 4 Blue Devils (15-2, 3-2) went to their zone from made baskets and deadball restarts – situations that gave them time to set up. From missed shots, they went man-to-man to better defend Louisville in transition.
But even the man-to-man defense was tweaked from the Miami loss. Instead of picking up dribblers when they crossed half court, the Blue Devils made the top of the key their point of pickup. It was in the same place for the zone.
“Try not to let people get points in the paint against us,” Krzyzewski said, summing up the main defensive goal. “Our guys did a good job of that.”
The zone and different man-to-man took away the Cardinals’ opportunities to draw Jahlil Okafor away from the paint and out on the perimeter, where he has struggled to guard ball screens. N.C. State and Miami used high ball screens to beat Duke, and Louisville used them in 2013 to beat Duke in the Elite Eight, a fact Louisville coach Rick Pitino mentioned after the game.
So with Okafor anchored in the paint, the Cardinals played to their weakness: jump shooting. And that went poorly for them, especially in the first half.
“We are not some of these great shooting teams,” Pitino said.
That was an understatement.
Louisville went 7-for-31 from the field in the first 20 minutes – 22.6 percent – and the mark was only that high thanks to a late “surge,” with three made baskets to end the half. Chris Jones, who sat all but eight minutes with foul trouble, was the only Louisville player to hit more than one shot (2-for-3). The rest of his teammates went 5-of-28 in their combined 92 minutes of first-half play. For most of the half, the Cardinals were mired in a 2-for-22 slump.
It wasn’t that Duke was contesting every shot tightly – Louisville had decent and wide-open looks. The Cardinals just kept missing.
“More than any game I has seen this year, this was the most open we’ve been, and we just could not knock down the shot,” Pitino said.
Louisville finished shooting 29.5 percent, including an unsightly 4-for-25 (16 percent) effort from 3.
Defensive rebounding, a task much more difficult in zone than man-to-man, is something the Blue Devils need to improve. Louisville rebounded 40 percent of its missed shots (18 offensive rebounds total). But, because of their inability to hit any shots, the Cardinals only turned them into 10 second-chance points.
Pitino was forced to call two early second-half timeouts, both before the first media timeout, in attempts to keep the Cardinals in the game. Duke went to Okafor often in the second half, as the big man asserted his dominance offensively, scoring 14 of his 18 points in the final 20 minutes. Amile Jefferson was aggressive all game, scoring a career-high 19 points, grabbing seven rebounds, and displaying a fiery passion that paced the rest of the team.
The Blue Devils had a 21-point lead, at 46-25, with 11:46 remaining in the game. That left the cold-shooting Cardinals in too large of hole.
“With the success that came after we won all those games, we kind of lost our edge a little bit,” Quinn Cook said. “We got it back – it took two losses to get it back – but we’re here now, 15-2. We’re happy with where we’re going.”