Before we get into any of this, Rob Dauster of NBC Sports has a really good look at Duke's recent defensive struggles. It's a post you should take a look at it, and one that touches on a number of the same things this one will.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Duke has allowed a combined 177 points in back-to-back double digit losses to unranked ACC opponents. Just two days after NC State had dropped 87 points in 70 possessions on the Dukies, Miami chalked up 90 points on 74 trips in an embarrassing 90-74 win insider Cameron Indoor Stadium. All this coming after a 14-0 start in which the Blue Devils never allowed a team to score more than 73 points, and held opponents to under 60 points on seven occasions.
So how is this happening? This team was supposed to be the antithesis of last season's Duke squad, one loaded with talent (including an eventual No. 2 draft pick) but ultimately doomed by its defensive shortcomings.
The middle and bottom layers of the issue might be a tad convoluted, but the primary problem is simple: Duke's guards aren't keeping their man in front of them.
What Mike Krzyzewski wants his team to do on defense is well-known and not particularly complicated. The Blue Devils play high-pressure "deny" man-to-man D. The system is reliant on having guards who are great on-ball defenders, bigs who know how to hedge in order to defend the pick-and-roll, and wings who know when to help and when to stay home. The first of those keys is the biggest, because if you don't have a guard or a couple of guards who can consistently apply pressure without letting their man get around them, you're going to wind up in 5-on-4 situations way too often.
Both Mark Gottfried and Jim Larranaga believed they had guards capable of exploiting this potential advantage, and both were ultimately proven right. Trevor Lacey, Cat Barber and Angel Rodriguez were all consistently put on an island in 4-out isolation sets where they could either attempt to blow by their man on their own or wait for a high ball screen.
Miami wasn't shy about letting Duke know what it planned on doing from the outset. This is their look on the first possession of the game:
For the sake of comparison, here's Peyton Siva and U of L's first offensive set from the 2013 Elite 8 game:
It goes without saying, but you typically don't beat Duke without really good guard play.
When they do screen high, the Cards will also take things a step further than Miami or NC State did and screen the ball-screener (likely Jahlil Okafor or Amile Jefferson on Saturday) in order to make him a step slower to the ball handler. This limits his ability to hedge effectively creating even more of an advantage for the U of L guards.
This leads to Duke's secondary issue, which is that Okafor isn't playing the role of rim protector nearly as well as he was at the beginning of the season. The freshman All-American was supposed to the difference maker for the Blue Devil defense this season, the elite shot-blocker who filled the hole that absolutely killed Duke on defense for much of last season.
The crazy thing is that Okafor has been in the right position more times than not the last couple of games, he just hasn't been challenging shots effectively (or at all). I understand the hesitation to commit a foul when you're that important of a player, but simply conceding two points isn't exactly showcasing your value.
Take a second and watch this clip.
Duke is a modern deny team, one which follows the "new" rule of trying to force ballhandlers to the baseline instead of funneling them back to the middle. In the clip, Quinn Cook does exactly what he's supposed to do, and this is the result:
I mean, that's exactly what Duke wants. Cook is still on the ballhandler's right shoulder, and Okafor -- the elite force in the middle -- is standing directly in front of him. He has nowhere to go. This is the successful culmination of all the hard work that had previously taken place on this possession.
And then Okafor inexplicably backs off.
One single act takes the possession from almost certainly resulting in a blocked shot, missed shot or turnover into two of the easiest points of the game. Obviously that's something you can't have. Duke's guards deserve their fair share of blame, but they're certainly not alone in this.
You'd never know it if you just looked at the box score, but if you can remember, Louisville absolutely abused Mason Plumlee in that game two years ago. While the Cards don't have Gorgui Dieng this year, and while Okafor and Jefferson are more athletic than Plumlee and Ryan Kelly were, it's still a safe bet that you're going to see U of L attempt to do a lot of the same things they did in Indianapolis.
The key to that, obviously, is the play of Chris Jones and Terry Rozier. While both have been sensational in recent weeks, Rick Pitino has been appropriately critical of their inability to use screens appropriately. While his biggest criticism has been the guards not "brushing shoulders" (getting close enough) to the screeners, both have also struggled when it comes to having the patience to wait for the screen to come to the proper place.
Often times, both Jones and Rozier have a habit of making their move to the basket while their screener is still moving towards them. It's understandable in a fast-paced, exciting game, but it's also something that achieves two very large negatives. First, you're not running your man into the screen or forcing the screener's defender to hedge, thus eliminating the whole purpose behind bringing a screener out high. Second, you're drastically increasing the likelihood of the screener being called for a moving pick and wasting an entire possession/picking up a costly foul.
By his senior season, Peyton Siva was the king of effectively using the pick-and-roll, and that was thanks in large part to his unrivaled patience.
Look at this screen shot from the 2013 game:
Originally, Quinn Cook (whom you'll see again tomorrow) forced Siva away from the screener (Trez), but Peyton wasn't having it. He basically dribbled in place until Trez could body up on Cook, leaving himself in a one-on-one situation with the slow-footed Ryan Kelly. This is the type of patience that both Jones and Rozier are going to have to showcase if U of L is going to win this game.
The final key to Louisville's success against the Duke defense is making open 3-point shots, because they're probably going to get more than a few.
There's a strong chance that the Blue Devils will walk into this game with little respect for U of L's perimeter offense, and I suppose that's understandable. The result will be that I think you're going to see Cook, Sulaimon and Jones go underneath a lot of the high ball screens and dare Louisville's guards, especially the shorter Jones, to beat them with those semi-contested pull-up treys from around the top of the key.
You're also likely going to see guys like Jefferson and Justise Winslow playing way off of Wayne Blackshear or Shaqquan Aaron, which should allow them both to get a handful of easy looks by just camping out in the corner or on the wing. This is both because Duke realizes it has to be more committed to helping on the blow-by, and because they probably don't think Louisville can beat them as easily from the outside as they can around the rim. Basically, there's a chance that much like the UK game, the outcome tomorrow could come down to little more than the Cardinals' ability to make open shots.
NC State and Miami were both afforded the same luxury, and the two teams cashed in by going a combined 20-for-36 from deep. Hopefully someone or someones can get hot and U of L can build on that trend.
The good news for Louisville is that there are weaknesses here that they know they can exploit. The bad news is Duke is coming into this game both humbled and hungry, meaning they'll be even more committed to fixing the issues outlined above than they would have been otherwise.
It's going to be an awfully fun afternoon at the Yum Center.