If anyone has ever had it, Duke did last Saturday in their game against Michigan. The Blue Devils started the game with a 34-2 run. Run, spurt or streak, none of them quite describes what transpired in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Dukies were flying, skying, shooting, jamming and rebounding. Michigan wasn’t. In fact the Wolverines went nine minutes without a field goal in the first half. How did the Blue Devils do it?
They found it. What is it that they so eloquently found? It’s hard to describe. Some coaches call it a mission or a sense of urgency. At Duke, it may best be described as an epiphany. The Blue Devils realized how good they can be when they play “all out” on the defensive end. You see, not only did the Blue Devils become very stingy about giving up baskets, they also became stingy about giving up passing lanes and second shots. Michigan could hardly make a pass just to start their offense. They finally succumbed to that fact and started their action with a high screen and roll. The Wolverines really had no other choice.
Blue Devil Coach Mike Krzyzewski was quoted after the game as saying, “I felt in the first half, it hurt us to let them score. That’s how I want us to play, where it hurts when you get scored upon.” So how does a coach get his team to that point, the point where they gel together and have the mindset that the other team just is not going to score? It’s not easy and many would say, “the planets were aligned” for such an event. Michigan is down this year and lost two of their better ball handlers from last year’s team. It’s also the time of year in which players’ minds wander toward thoughts of final exams and trips home – not hoops.
All of this is true, yet it should not take away from the Blue Devils’ performance. It was magnificent. You could see it building. They struggled in their first matchup with Temple but recently came back with a vengeance in a rematch and made it excruciatingly tough on John Chaney’s Owls. Their leader, Shane Battier, wreaks of defense. Defense is hard work. It’s not easy. Battier has built a successful career based on these principles. It was definitely building.
But can they sustain it? The scariest part about playing that well defensively in December is that it may not be there when you need it in March. Tom Izzo is trying to get his team primed for that point. His team has played very well defensively early this year. Florida and North Carolina both realized how difficult the Spartans can make things on an opposing offense. Yet, Izzo recently said that this team isn’t anywhere near last year’s team on the defensive end. Clearly, that’s a coach trying to prime the pump for a run through the conference and then through the tournament. A team hasn’t been as dominating as Duke was last Saturday for an entire season since the UNLV teams of the early nineties. That type of play got them to two Final Fours, one in which they beat Duke in the finals and one in which they lost to Duke in the semis.
For the Blue Devils to sustain this type of intensity will definitely be a challenge. They have a tough ACC conference to face this season and a limited bench that could cause them problems. You are not likely to see a performance like that, night in and night out. Yet, Coach K has worked his magic before and pulling Shane Battier out of his hat is always a pretty good start.