Duke Basketball: Blue Devils must kick bad habits on defense to succeed

(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
(Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images) /

In order for the upcoming Duke basketball season to end with a win in April, the Blue Devils will have to take more pride in their defense than they did in the first half of their first exhibition game.

The Duke basketball team’s defense during the first half of its 106-64 win over Virginia Union on Tuesday night mirrored that of last season’s squad, which ended up failing to reach its full potential due to its inability — or unwillingness — to stop opponents from being able to seemingly score at-will during stretches of seemingly every game.

Failing to get back in transition. Lacking urgency when stepping out to contest a three. Waving a white flag and stepping out of the way when the opponent drives to the hoop.

Those were lazy habits displayed by the freshman-laden Blue Devils before halftime in the first of their two exhibition games. Those lazy habits were supposed to be a thing of the past in Durham after four freshmen bolted after last season. And those lazy habits, if not corrected soon, could stand in the way of Duke having any chance to cut down the nets in Minneapolis come April.

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However, Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski took most of the blame for the team’s defensive effort, claiming he asked his players to do too much in their first game — as a unit — in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

"“I thought in the first half, [Virginia Union] really pushed it on us and we were trying to press too much,” the 39th-year coach said after the game. “That’s me. We gambled a lot. Every time we gambled, we didn’t get it most of the time. It produced a numerical advantage for them and they took advantage of it. Because we are pressing, and we are trying to change presses, when we scored, they got it in quickly. Guys who would normally be back, were up. We were caught in that transition.”"

While it was nice for Coach K not to call out his guys for lacking effort, it certainly looked that way to this spectator (in the first half only). According to Krzyzewski, though, the defense improved after the break due more to a change in schemes than an increase in intensity.

"“In the second half, we just played half-court man,” the all-time winningest college basketball coach said. “We didn’t gamble in the second half, Tre (Jones) put really good pressure on the ball and our bench did a good job.”"

But gambling by constantly applying maximum pressure is the most surefire way for this team to overwhelm the opponents on its schedule, starting with a regular-season opener against second-ranked Kentucky in the Champions Classic on Nov. 6 in Indianapolis.

In other words, if the Blue Devils don’t want to board the plane after that game with a 0-1 start, they better quickly figure out what it will take for them to become a defensive juggernaut; after all, the explosive, high-flying offensive abilities of Duke’s freshmen are best highlighted on fast breaks, which typically require either a steal, block, or missed shot by the opponent.

Coach K indicated that those steals, blocks, and forced misses will come as a result of the players adequately communicating with one another on defense.

"“It’s not a problem, just a habit we haven’t gotten yet,” he said. “The first half, by trying to press and change some presses, we made our guys have to talk more than we should have. We should put them in a defense right now where they are more comfortable in doing it. We talked well in the second half. We were just a little all over the place in the first half. Our guys were excited. For five of them, it’s their first game. We tend to forget, even though it’s an exhibition, it’s their first game in Cameron. Let them get over that. We have a lot of growing up to do.”"

OK, we’ll give them some time to grow up as a team on defense and break bad habits.

Next. Why steals will be Duke's key performance indicator. dark

But if that process takes more than 13 days, the season will have a rocky start with flashbacks to the lack of defense played in the 2017-18 season quickly becoming the primary topic of conversation until the issue is fixed.