College Basketball Nation: Matt Jones

DURHAM, N.C. -- Duke’s defensive principles and concepts finally morphed from the abstract to the tangible against Michigan ON Tuesday night in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

It might not be the watershed game that changes the entire season, but the No. 10 Blue Devils saw what it was like to win a game by stopping a team rather than simply outscoring them. Their 79-69 win over the No. 22 Wolverines in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge had everything Duke teams generally take for granted, minus its trademark slapping of the floor.

“For a young team I think you have to see it first,” forward Rodney Hood said. “Coach is saying you’ve got to do this or you’ve got to do that, you don’t see it. … This is a big confidence boost for our defense knowing that we can shut out a great team. Well not shut out, but we can play really good defense on a great team.”

Michigan extended the game late by fouling and making baskets, scoring 19 points in the final two minutes. The Wolverines shot 56 percent in the second half, which would fool anyone who didn’t watch the game into thinking they were effective.

They weren’t.

“Even without stats, we’re playing better defensively,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We played an outstanding defensive game tonight -- not a good one -- an outstanding defensive game tonight.”

[+] EnlargeQuinn Cook
Chuck Liddy/Raleigh News & Observer/Getty ImagesQuinn Cook and company hounded Nik Stauskas all night, holding Michigan's leading scorer to four points.
Michigan’s Nik Stauskas, who led the Wolverines with 20.3 points per game, did not score a basket. All four of his season-low points came from the free-throw line.

Stauskas might have still been a bit hobbled after returning from an ankle injury that kept him out of Friday’s win over Coppin State. But Duke’s Tyler Thornton and Matt Jones never lost him in transition or left him to help out in the post.

“Me and Ty made an effort not to let him catch the ball,” Jones said. I’m going out on a limb and saying it would have been hard for anybody to score the way we were focused tonight.”

Jones played a season-high 18 minutes, presumably taking minutes that Rasheed Sulaimon would have had. Sulaimon did not play, leaving Krzyzewski to say after the game that he “needed to play better than guys who played tonight.”

Duke’s glaring weakness on paper -- its interior defense -- had arguably its best effort of the season. The Blue Devils outrebounded Michigan 32-31. That might not seem like a major feat, but this is the same team that got handled on the boards by Kansas to the tune of 39-24.

“We knew we were going to be a little undersized, but we have guys who will battle,” said Duke forward Amile Jefferson, who tied Jabari Parker with a team-high six rebounds. “I think we’ve really gotten back to that each game. We’ve gotten better -- I think it showed, especially in the first half, our ability to rebound and defend.”

The Blue Devils entered the game allowing opponents to shoot 45 percent from the floor. They haven’t allowed that high of a percentage since giving up 46.7 percent in 1991-92. And like that national championship team, this team has little problem scoring. It's currently averaging 86.1 points per game, which nearly mirrors the 88.0-point average from ’92.

Hood said becoming a championship caliber team will likely be defined by how well -- or ineffective -- it is at stopping teams.

“We can score the ball, that’s not an issue,” Hood said. “We have to have that defensive mindset, and that’s what’s going to get it for us this year.”

Losses to Kansas and Arizona -- and even watching Vermont shoot 64 percent in a narrow Duke win -- proved the Blue Devils’ mortality. But the way they beat Michigan boosted confidence that they can become a better defensive team.

“We’re not a great basketball team,” Krzyzewski said. “We have great kids and they’re trying hard. We’ve got a really tough schedule; we’re just trying to get better.”

They took a major step toward that Tuesday. The Wolverines averaged better than nine 3-pointers a game, but Duke held them to a season-low three.

“We took them out of their offense, we took away their best player and we took away their 3-point shots for the most part,” Hood said. “We talked, we gang rebounded, we scrapped for loose balls. That’s what we have to do to be a great team.”
Mark Gottfried picked an inopportune time to reload.

His North Carolina State squad lost the bulk of its key pieces from last season. C.J. Leslie and Lorenzo Brown entered the draft. Richard Howell exhausted his eligibility. And former McDonald’s All-American Rodney Purvis transferred to Connecticut.

The Wolfpack signed a 2013 recruiting class that’s ranked 13th in the country. That will help. But Syracuse, Notre Dame and Pitt will join the ACC next season. That won’t help.

And it won’t ease his plight, especially with the best team in America standing in the Wolfpack’s way.

Gottfried believes that Duke should be the No. 1 team in the country entering next season. Not only does he believe it, he “can’t imagine” any other team holding that slot.


Per David Morrison of the Greensboro News & Record, who attended NC State’s annual summer news conference on Tuesday:
With freshman Jabari Parker and Mississippi State transfer Rodney Hood added to the mix, Gottfried feels as if Duke could have the second and third picks of next year's NBA Draft playing on its perimeter.

"There's a lot of attention around Jabari Parker, but wait until you see Rodney Hood," Gottfried said. "He's that good. They're loaded."

Hood, who injured his Achilles tendon during the Team USA World University Games tryout camp, should be full-speed by the fall.

Plus the Blue Devils bring back starters Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon, reintroduce Andre Dawkins and bring in freshmen Semi Ojeleye and Matt Jones on the wings.

That's quite a stacked perimeter.

"We'll all have a great time trying to get ready for that," Gottfried said bemusedly.

That's why, when handicapping the league at the beginning of July, Gottfried's eyes are straying to Durham.

"I can't imagine anybody else being picked No. 1 in the country than Duke," Gottfried said.

Now, Gottfried’s praise is valid. Duke will be legit next season.

Parker was the biggest thing in the 2013 class before Andrew Wiggins reclassified. And Hood, if healthy, could be a high-level NBA prospect, too.

But has Gottfried ever been to the state of Kentucky? There are a few teams there that might have a case for No. 1. This guy, John Calipari, signed six McDonald’s All-Americans. In one class.

The Wildcats should be OK, right?

Oh and there is this Louisville squad, too. Some coach named Rick Pitino led that team to the national championship a few months ago, and his program retained multiple key contributors. The Cardinals should be solid, too.

And Kansas has Wiggins. So there’s that. Michigan State, Arizona, Syracuse and Florida will also be in the mix.

Perhaps Gottfried simply, uh, misspoke.