Luke DeCock

DeCock: Very different Duke brings Krzyzewski to brink of milestone

Duke forward Justise Winslow and Pittsburgh guard Josh Newkirk go to the floor for a loose ball in the first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke forward Justise Winslow and Pittsburgh guard Josh Newkirk go to the floor for a loose ball in the first half at Cameron Indoor Stadium. cliddy@newsobserver.com

It’s tough enough getting one’s mind around the idea of an ACC that includes Pittsburgh, to name but one Big East interloper, one that just happened to be making its first conference visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Monday.

That’s nothing compared to a Duke team that plays zone, not only as a slumpbuster at Louisville but again against Pittsburgh, at home no less. It’s nearly impossible to comprehend.

Desperate times required desperate measures from Mike Krzyzewski, who until this pivotal point in his career approached zone defense with the same enthusiasm as a day spent at the endodontist.

But the Blue Devils beat Louisville. And they beat Pittsburgh, 79-65. There’s no arguing with results.

Now on the verge of a historic milestone, career wins No. 998 and 999 came in most unusual fashion compared to the first 997, as Duke turned a two-game losing streak into a two-game winning streak by making heavy use of the 2-3 zone Krzyzewski pilfered from Olympic compatriot Jim Boeheim, a most un-Duke-like move but a necessary one. (Boeheim, for his part, texted Krzyzewski, demanding royalties.)

“It was tough, but it was a lot easier because we had no choice,” Duke forward Amile Jefferson said. “No matter what we were doing, we had to buy in, because we lost two games and our backs were against the wall. It was kind of good to see something new, to see a change. We needed to see something different.”

Somewhat lost in the shuffle surrounding Saturday’s unexpected foray into Syracuse’s schematic turf was that the zone was more effective as psychological gambit than defense. Louisville managed to miss any number of open shots, the Cardinals perhaps quite unbelieving of what they were seeing.

Pittsburgh seemed to feel the same way in the first half Monday. The second half was a different story, with Pittsburgh finding its shooting rhythm and Krzyzewski calling an early and fiery timeout to underscore the Blue Devils’ lack of defensive execution. The Panthers turned masonry into artistry, improving from 37.0 percent shooting in the first half to 51.5 in the second.

“We had open shots,” Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. “We had good looks. If you look at the film, we got exactly what we wanted.”

So concerns will certainly remain in that area, but not on a night when Duke shoots 11-for-23 from 3-point range, which will succor many ills, if not all. And the zone may have contributed to that, by offering a security blanket that allowed Duke to relax offensively after the defensive breakdowns seemed to weigh heavily on the Blue Devils in the losses to N.C. State and Miami.

Krzyzewski retroactively attributed the defensive issues in those losses to a young team’s struggles on offense, with players left feeling “isolated” on defense. Playing zone and less aggressive man, both against the grain of traditional Duke defense, offers a safety net.

“They’re just trying to grow up,” Krzyzewski said. “And we’re trying to help them grow up.”

Zone or man, a win is a win, and Krzyzewski now has 999 heading into Sunday’s game at St. John’s.

So fitting: His first crack at four digits comes on the same Madison Square Garden floor where he surpassed Bobby Knight with his 903rd win, a locale just as convenient for many Duke alumni as a home game.

Knight was courtside in 2011, and happy to hand the torch along, but the man who taught Krzyzewski man-to-man defense – and only man-to-man defense – has to be confused watching Duke play zone like this. His protege has forsaken him for Boeheim, pragmatism trumping philosophy even at this late point in his career, but fruitfully so.

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