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Before the 2013 college basketball season began, Duke fans and college basketball analysts were pegging this year’s team as a high level defensive squad that would turn over opponents with pressure on-ball defense. However, after 11 games and multiple scares from inferior opponents at Cameron Indoor Stadium, it is apparent that the Duke defense isn’t what everyone expected.
Although there have been improvements made when it comes to rebounding (outrebounded UCLA by 8) and other defensive categories, this team’s defensive identity is still up in the air. One of the most alarming facets of this year’s defensive performance is the seemingly endless amount of dribble penetration that is being allowed. Containing penetration starts with the point guard and simply put, Quinn Cook has underperformed on the defensive end against opposing point guards. Just in the past week, Duke has struggled keeping guards out the paint. This happened last Monday against Gardner-Webb when it came to point guard Tyler Strange and also against UCLA with Kyle Anderson, Norman Powell and Bryce Alford.
Constant on-ball pressure and denying passing lanes were supposed strengths of this Duke Basketball team coming into the season but after 11 games, a change is obviously needed. One aspect of a team that is exposed when players constantly pressure the ball and gamble for steals is allowing easy looks at the rim. This could be easily remedied, if the team had a legitimate rim protector that could cover up some of the mistakes that lead guards make when applying on-ball pressure. This was never more apparent than just last year during the National Championship with the Louisville Cardinals. Rick Pitino was allowed to unleash Russ Smith and Peyton Siva, not only because of their great athleticism and defensive ability, but also because he had a legitimate rim protector in Gorgui Dieng. Dieng covered up mistakes made on the perimeter defensively because he would contest shots around the rim effectively.
Sad to break it to Duke fans, but the Landlord is not walking through those doors anytime soon. What this Duke defense needs is a change in identity. Less on-ball pressure, less gambling and a more solid approach to the defensive side of the ball are necessary. Instead of gambling for steals and applying pressure 50 feet from the basket, why not give half a step to the opposing player and force contested shots. This approach will also help to cover up the fact that they do not have any true rim protectors.
Another aspect of this conversation involves looking at the Duke personnel. Quinn Cook does not possess elite quickness and therefore surrenders a ton of straight line drives without impediment. Tyler Thornton has undeniable toughness but during the UCLA game, guards and forwards were able to get to the basket as well. Andre Dawkins certainly is no defensive stopper and neither is Rasheed Sulaimon, to a certain degree. For all the greatness that has been deservedly bestowed upon freshman sensation Jabari Parker, his lack of defensive awareness and effort have been exploited this season. A prime example of this was when Kyle Anderson and David Wear executed a pick and pop in the second half – Josh Hairston clearly communicated a switch but Parker was late to close out on Wear who then knocked down his fourth three pointer of the game. Surely Parker will continue to develop on the defensive side of the ball but knowing opposing players and scouting reports have been less than stellar for this year’s team.
The personnel truly does define what a defense does and because of this, Coach K might want to adapt the current defensive approach. Switching out the less aggressive defensive approach that prides itself on forcing tough outside shots will greatly benefit Duke in the long run.
As the season continues, I believe Duke’s defense will constantly improve. When the defense begins to close the gap with its’ own potent offense, the team will truly separate from the second tier of national championship contenders and cement it’s spot with the four or five truly elite national championship contenders that exist today.