When people think of the Duke Blue Devils, a number of things come to mind: Christian Laettner’s legendary shot, championship culture, teams defined by a fast-paced scoring attack, and many others. However, one thing that doesn’t immediately come to mind is strong defense.
Granted, this isn’t to say that Duke is a terrible defensive team. Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski has been with the program for 35 years, owns an overall career record of 1,014-310, has two Olympic gold medals as the coach of Team USA, and has also won four national championships with Duke. Thus, his teams are clearly doing something right on the defensive end of the court.
But Duke has the blessing and curse of being a run-and-gun team, meaning that they like to score fast and in bunches. If a team like the Utah Utes can slow down that quick attack at all, it could put the Blue Devils in some hot water.
Sure enough, Duke happens to have a Sweet Sixteen matchup with Utah tonight at Houston’s NRG Stadium.
In its first truly big season since the years of the late great Rick Majerus, with a Sweet Sixteen trip under Ray Giacoletti in 2005 being the sole exception, Utah has played excellently this tournament. In knocking off pesky Stephen F. Austin and the tough defense of Georgetown, head coach Larry Krystkowiak’s boys have more than proven their worth and heir strong on-ball defense and disciplined offensive attack could prove to give Duke a tough time with a trip to the Elite Eight on the line.
On the season, Utah was 13th in the nation in field goal percentage, making 48.5 percent of its shots as a unit, and also ranked 59th in scoring with 72.1 points per contest. Those marks helped the Utes finish tied for second in the Pac-12 with a regular season of record of 23-7 (13-5 Pac-12).
But Duke finished well in specific categories, too. The Blue Devils were fourth in the nation in scoring (80.2 PPG), 44th in rebounding (37.3 RPG), and third in field goal percentage at just over 50 percent. On paper, they have the clear advantage, and are six point favorites heading into tonight’s game.
Still, Utah is going to give them a run for their money. The Utes have a fine young center in freshman seven-footer Jakob Poeltl, who posted 9.1 points and 6.7 boards per game while shooting an excellent 69 percent from the field. This is going to make things tough for Duke freshman center Jahlil Okafor, who is finally going to be matched up with someone of equal size who can cover him in the paint. This immediately takes one of Coach K’s biggest weapons away from him, and forces him to rely on his guards, who, though talented, are primarily shooters, with the exception of Tyus Jones, who can simply do it all.
That all being said, defense has to be the name of the game for the Blue Devils tonight. Utah is a pesky squad, and slowing their disciplined high-percentage attack is critical to punching a ticket to the Elite Eight. More importantly, boxing out Poeltl will be vitally important in order for Okafor to get back in the rebounding game, as he has only averaged 4.5 per contest since the big dance began. So long as that happens and the team chooses its shots wisely on the other side of the court, Duke can advance.
Otherwise, we may be seeing another No. 1 seed fall tonight.
*Section Photo credit to Streeter Lecka, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to Rob Kinnan, USA Today Sports.