Luke DeCock

In floor-slapping win, a hint of days past for a very different Duke team

Duke's Allen and Coach K on floor-slapping

Duke's Grayson Allen and Coach Mike Krzyzewski talk about floor-slapping while playing zone defense after the Blue Devils' victory over Syracuse in the Midwest Regional Semifinal at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb. Friday, March 23, 2018.
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Duke's Grayson Allen and Coach Mike Krzyzewski talk about floor-slapping while playing zone defense after the Blue Devils' victory over Syracuse in the Midwest Regional Semifinal at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb. Friday, March 23, 2018.

At Mike Krzyzewski's instigation, as Duke tried to take control late in the first half Friday, his players slapped the floor.

Like the old days: Bobby Hurley and Christian Laettner and Grant Hill and Shane Battier, in your face, not getting past us, just try it. The program was built on feisty, floor-slapping man-to-man defense.

But who was this display of aggression supposed to intimidate? Duke's players weren't matching up with anyone; they were sitting patiently and passively in their assigned spots in Duke's not-so-new-but-still-very-odd 2-3 zone, waiting for Syracuse to come up the court.

Old Duke and New Duke collided in that moment, and even Hill, on the CBS broadcast, seemed stricken by the circumstances.

“Can you do that with a zone?” Hill asked, more than a little pointedly.

“I mean, we did it,” Grayson Allen said later, after the 69-65 Duke win. “You can do it. It's about energy and intensity and showing some togetherness on the defensive end and getting a stop.”

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski talks about the Blue Devils' victory over Syracuse in the Midwest Regional Semifinal at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb. Friday, March 23, 2018.

As if to reinforce the point, when Duke gave up the first four points of the second half, Krzyzewski called timeout, tore off his suit jacket and let his team have it in the huddle with a dialect known in some quarters as Army creole. As Old Duke as it gets, that bit.

We still have yet to find out if a Duke divided against itself can stand, but it continues to work so far.

The Blue Devils are a game away from their second Final Four in four years after surviving 11th-seeded Syracuse on Friday – the Orange's second straight NCAA elimination at the hands of another ACC team – but will have to get past Devonte Graham and top-seeded Kansas on Sunday to get there.

In a game filled with alley-oops and missed open 3-pointers as zone guru Jim Boeheim went against zone convert Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils struggled to put Syracuse away time and time again, letting the Orange hang around by going 2-for-18 from 3-point range in the second half.

Watch a time-lapse as Duke's Marvin Bagley III slam in two over Syracuse's Bourama Sidibe during the Blue Devils' victory over Syracuse in the Midwest Regional Semifinal at CenturyLink Center in Omaha, Neb. Friday, March 23, 2018.

But Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III made the difference late, Bagley with the tip of a Carter miss and Carter with the block at the other end. Grayson Allen came down to take – and make – his first 2-point attempt of the game and run the Duke lead to nine with 4:07 to play.

It still took free throws to hold off Syracuse, Gary Trent Jr. making the last two with 6.3 seconds to go to secure the win.

So Duke advances, and even if the sight of Krzyzewski pumping his fist to the crowd in his shirtsleeves was all too familiar, there's something jarring about watching Duke set up in a zone. Even – and especially – for people like Hill, who played in a different era, when Krzyzewski would sooner have slapped a "Fly Navy" bumper sticker on his car than play zone.

But times change, and as this group of talented Duke freshmen tries to match the exploits of the talented Duke freshmen from three years ago, Boeheim's purloined zone has been the answer to unlocking this team's potential.

And if Hill's rhetorical question was a hint about how he and his peers feel about it, the man whose opinion matters most doesn't care.

“I always thought that Hurley and Laettner had to make Hill slap the floor,” Krzyzewski said. “So he was a reluctant slapper.”

Krzyzewski may have been a reluctant zoner, but that's what Duke is now. Whether Bagley's Duke and Hill's Duke can coexist will be determined over the next two to 10 days. Kansas will pose a stiff test, a team that's both big and fast, with elite guards and at least one big man who appears ready and equipped to bang bodies with Bagley and Carter underneath.

So two of college basketball's elite powerhouses will meet Sunday for a spot in San Antonio, a Kansas team that looks very much like Kansas teams past and a Duke team that plays nothing like Duke teams past, an experiment that keeps inching closer and closer to success as it moves farther and farther away from the past.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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