Duke focused on ‘D’ with Michigan on deck

Dec. 02, 2013 @ 11:36 PM

Duke headed to New York City last week searching for improved defensive play.

Even though the Blue Devils came home from the big city with one more loss than it arrived with, they are happy with how things progressed in that area of focus.

“These past two games I think our defense has improved,” Blue Devils senior guard Tyler Thornton said. “We are still learning to rebound better. But if we can take a positive from this week I’d definitely say our defense and our defensive rebounding is improving.”

Those areas will face yet another stern test as No. 22 Michigan faces No. 10 Duke tonight (9:30 p.m., ESPN) at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

Opponents are shooting 45 percent overall and 27 percent on 3-pointers against Duke (6-2) this season. A deeper look into that number shows how the Blue Devils are working to improve.

Kansas shot 56 percent when it beat Duke 94-83 in Chicago on Nov. 12. Duke held its next three opponents – Florida Atlantic, UNC Asheville and East Carolina – to 40.3 or lower shooting percentages.

Things got dicey on Nov. 24 when Vermont shot 64.8 percent in a game the Blue Devils hung on to win 91-90.

Last week at Madison Square Garden in the NIT Season-Tip Off Tournament, Alabama shot 49.4 percent against Duke while Arizona hit 48.9 percent of its shots.

But the Blue Devils forced 16 turnovers in each of those two games, doing so by netting 10 steals against Alabama. Duke won that game 74-64, marking the fewest points the Blue Devils had allowed in a game this season.

Arizona, which moved up to No. 2 in the Associated Press poll on Monday, beat Duke 72-66.

The Blue Devils led by as many as six points early in the second half before a 20-5 Wildcats run turned the game in their favor for good. Duke even resorted to running a 2-3 zone defense on a few possessions in an attempt to offset Arizona’s superior height advantage.

The Wildcats foiled it a couple of times with lob passes for baskets.

“We worked on it a little bit,” Duke point guard Quinn Cook said of the Blue Devils’ rare zone usage. “Just to guard their inbounds since they are so big. Just to kind of neutralize that. The coaches said to stay in there for a couple of plays. We did a good job, except for the lob play.”

Even though Duke shot a season-low 43.1 in each of its two games in New York last week, scoring isn’t going to be problem in the long term for the Blue Devils. Duke leads the ACC in scoring with 87 points per game.

Against top-quality teams like Michigan and UCLA (which Duke plays in Madison Square Garden on Dec. 19) the focus has to be on defense for the Blue Devils.

The work toward bringing the defense closer to championship level produced good results last week.

“We’ve got to keep building on what we did well,” Thornton said. “The offense will take care of itself throughout the year.”