DURHAM – During team meetings and off-the-court conversations, Duke basketball players have stressed improving defensively.
After watching a few opponents blow by them off the dribble or lose them on screens, the No. 8 Blue Devils (13-2, 1-0 ACC) say they’ve had enough. A solid defensive performance in their 81-74 conference-opener over Georgia Tech has bolstered the team’s confidence as they welcome No. 16 Virginia (14-1, 1-0) to Cameron Indoor Stadium on Thursday (ESPN, 9 p.m.).
The Devils own the ACC’s worst scoring defense – allowing 69.4 points per game. Their opponents are allowing just 50.5 points per game and sit atop the conference in that statistical category, a familiar place where past Duke teams dwelled.
Only a few percentage points separate this young Duke team from others in scoring defense – No. 11 N.C. State (69.3), No. 8 Wake Forest (68.8) and No. 6 North Carolina (66.4) – yet it stings for a team that prides itself on stopping opponents.
“We’re definitely aware of it and it definitely bothers us,” Duke senior forward Miles Plumlee said on Tuesday. “It’s just not what Duke teams do. We’re trying to fix that and adjust how we play defense.”
What’s been the problem?
“We didn’t really trust each other,” Duke junior forward Ryan Kelly said. “To have a good defense, you have to be able to trust each other, know each other, have each other’s back.”
Without trust, players said, mistakes happen.
“Sometimes you don’t trust guys behind you, so you don’t pressure the ball as much and you get beat,” Duke junior guard Seth Curry said. “Guys don’t take charges or you’re just not guarding your man.”
The Devils point to a disappointing 78-73 road loss to Temple on Jan. 4 as a prime example. They saw warning signs headed into that game.
Recently, though, they’ve taken steps to address their on-court trust issues, meeting as a team and trying to build bonds away from the court.
Against Georgia Tech, there was evidence that their team-building was paying off. Players went out of their way to support teammates.
Kelly said Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has focused on-ball pressure as a specific area of improvement.
Virginia, which likes to slow down and control the pace of a game, is averaging 65.7 points per game and features talented senior forward Mike Scott.
“We just want to pressure the ball more,” Duke freshman guard Quinn Cook said. “Just kind of get them out of rhythm with pressure on the ball.”
With intense perimeter defense on Virginia’s guards, the Devils can help their post players such as Kelly slow down the 6-foot-8 Scott, who is averaging 16.5 points and 8.9 rebounds per game and is garnering much attention with his play this season.
“He’s a tremendous player,” Kelly said of Scott. “He’s a player that can’t be guarded by one person. He needs the whole team around him, guys helping.”
The Devils are growing more in tuned with team defensive concept.
“Developing that closeness on the court is some thing unfortunately sometimes you have to go through some hard things to really develop,” Plumlee said. “That loss at Temple was tough for us. Coming back and trying to figure out where we are as a team is difficult as well. ... We’re headed in the right direction.”