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Duke is regaining its defensive swagger. That will matter plenty come March.

Duke’s Zion Williamson is a ‘Dunk Monster’

The Blue Devil freshman talks about his dunking prowess and the energy it provides the already hyper Cameron Crazies.
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The Blue Devil freshman talks about his dunking prowess and the energy it provides the already hyper Cameron Crazies.

The words originated with legendary Temple coach John Chaney, were delivered by Hartford coach John Gallagher Wednesday night and represent Duke’s goal each season.

“John Chaney’s great line was, ‘They don’t hand out any NCAA watches in November or December,’” Gallagher said.

He was talking about his Hartford Hawks, who play in the America East Conference. To reach NCAA tournament glory, they have to get by league foe Maryland-Baltimore County, which made March noise of its own last year.

A loss to Duke in December does nothing to hurt Hartford’s chances.

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But Gallagher’s comment always applies to Duke, which sets out each season aiming to be the last team standing the Monday night in April when the NCAA title is awarded.

Ranked No. 3 in the nation, the Blue Devils beat Hartford 84-54 to improve their record to 8-1.

When the final chapters are written about this year’s Blue Devils, not many words are likely be used to chronicle this game.

It’s a mid-week, non-conference game in December that the Blue Devils, after struggling to separate from the Hawks, eventually won handily.

Zion Williamson’s off-the-backboard pass to R.J. Barrett for a dunk will be the lasting memory for most fans.

But since the subject is championship goals, a point Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski made after the win should have more staying power.

Once again, Krzyzewski has a team that can defend. Come March and April, that’s a trait that will be extremely important.

“We’ve played really good defense in my 39 years here, man,” Krzyzewski said. “We’ve played great defense over the years. This team can play great defense and it can block shots. And that helps. Or pressure shots. We have to keep building on it.”

Shutdown pressure defense hasn’t been the hallmark of Krzyzewski’s latest Duke teams, even though last year’s team fell just a win short of the Final Four and the previous year’s team won the ACC Tournament.

Advanced statistics produced by Ken Pomeroy measure defensive efficiency, or how many points a team allows per 100 possessions.

Duke’s 2015 NCAA championship team’s defensive efficiency was 92.0. Over the last three years, the numbers have been 100, 98.6 and 93.6.

After Wednesday night’s win over Hartford, Duke is at 90.8, seventh-best in the country.

For all of Williamson’s high-flying dunks, Barrett’s consistent scoring and Tre Jones’ slick passing at point guard, it’s the defensive profile the freshmen-laden Blue Devils are compiling that should go far in determining their March success.

“Our defense always leads to our offense,” said Barrett, who finished with 27 points and 15 rebounds. “Whenever Tre starts pressuring the ball and getting steals, it’s tremendous.”

Duke struggled to score against Hartford’s zone defense Wednesday night. The Blue Devils shot only 40 percent in the first half, missing their first 10 3-pointers, and their 33 points marked their lowest-scoring half of the season.

Still, the Blue Devils never trailed. Though the Hawks climbed within five points early in the second half, they never had possession with a chance to tie or take the lead.

That’s because the Blue Devils clamped down on defense.

The Blue Devils start slow against the outmatched Hartford squad but a second half surge defensively stops the visitors

Hartford shot 32.8 percent, making just 8 of 27 3-pointers for 29.6 percent. The Hawks committed 21 turnovers.

“If we get stops we can go in transition,” Jones said. “That’s how we can go on those runs that we go on.”

Duke recorded 15 steals and blocked 10 shots, which only strengthened its place among the nation’s best in those categories. Duke entered the night averaging 7.4 blocks per game, No. 1 in the country, and 10 steals per game, sixth in the nation.

With jump shots not falling against Hartford, Duke’s defense allowed it pull away with stops that turned into transition baskets in the second half.

“It knocked them out of their routine,” Krzyzewski said. “In the first half we didn’t pressure and we didn’t deny and they were able to get into a really good routine because they are well coached and they are good. We played a faster tempo that was dictated by our defense and it turned out well.”

If Duke keeps playing defense this well, or even better, things figure to turn out well come springtime in Minneapolis at the Final Four.

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An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.


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