Duke Basketball: Is Duke Improving On Defense?

DURHAM, NC - DECEMBER 30: Grayson Allen
DURHAM, NC - DECEMBER 30: Grayson Allen /

Duke has the best offense in the country. The Blue Devils are number one in the country in points per game, number two in the country in rebounds per game, and have the second most efficient offense in the country according to analytics savant Ken Pomeroy. Offense is not this team’s weakness though.

In the first three ACC games of the year, Duke conceded 89, 93, and 96 points to the not-so-daunting triumvirate of Boston College, Florida State, and NC State. Unsurprisingly, Duke’s putrid defensive led to a 1-2 record to start ACC play.

Fortunately, Duke’s defense has drastically improved. Since Duke’s poor start to conference play, allowed its opponents to only score 52, 71, 75, 54, and 70 points. Here are four reasons why Duke has improved on the defensive end of the floor.

1) Wendell Carter’s Improved Rim Defense

Carter has struggled with foul trouble all year. He has fouled out against Indiana and Wake Forest. He accumulated four fouls on seven other occasions. Carter has managed to avoid foul trouble the last three games while averaging three blocks in those games. To start the season, Carter struggled to use his size and keep his arms vertical when challenging opponent’s shots. It appears he is rapidly improving at protecting the rim which is an absolute requirement for Duke as they continue to struggle preventing easy drives.

2) Improved Effort

Led by Grayson Allen, Duke has shown improved effort on defense since the loss to NC State. Allen seems to dive on the floor three times a game. Gary Trent, Jr. and Trevon Duval are showing plenty of fight. In the two losses, Duke average 8 steals per game. In the ongoing five game winning streak, Duke has averaged 9.6 steals a game.

3) A Willingness to Play More Zone Defense

With just under ten minutes left in the Miami game, Duke trailed by 13 points and looked dead in the water. Miami was getting to the rim at will and scoring easy bucket after easy bucket.  Then Duke played entirely zone defense, Gary Trent hit a couple big threes, and the game was tied. Miami’s offense, which was clicking so well for the first 30 minutes, stagnated and the ‘Canes only scored 11 points the rest of the game.

In the second game against Wake Forest, Duke again switched to zone for long stretches of the second half. Unsurprisingly, this came after a Wake Forest offensive flurry. While the zone was not as effective against Miami, it still slowed down Wake and allowed Duke to regain its handle on the game.

The zone certainly seems more effective than the man to man defense. It will be interesting to see if Duke plays more man down down the stretch or if zone is played even more frequently.

4) Weaker Offensive Opponents

I wish Duke’s defensive performances had come against the league’s elite offensive teams. That has not been the case. Pittsburgh is a dumpster fire, Wake Forest is not much better, and Miami struggles offensively. Per kenpom.com, Pittsburgh is one of the least efficient offensive teams in the country ranking 263 out of 349 teams. Miami (ranked 89) and Wake Forest (76) are each considerably more efficient than Pittsburgh but are still far from offensively elite.

Next: Looking Ahead to the 2018-19 Blue Devils

Duke will learn more in the next couple weeks. On January 27, UVA travels to Cameron Indoor Stadium with 36th most efficient offense in the country. Notre Dame, with the 39th most efficient offense, comes to Duke just two days after UVA. If Duke can continue its recent defensive performances through those games, the defense may actually be improving.