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Notre Dame Basketball Preview: Duke Blue Devils

Duke's Mike Krzyzewski brings 1,000 career victories to South Bend on Wednesday. Let's look at how the Irish can keep from being 1,001.

Duke's 1-2 Freshman Punch
Duke's 1-2 Freshman Punch
Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

In case you were under a rock this weekend, Coach Mike Krzyzewski won his 1,000th game as the Duke Blue Devils beat St. John's Sunday. Lost in that media frenzy were the efforts of a plucky little upstart from South Bend. Former Coach K assistant, Mike Brey has his Notre Dame Fighting Irish sitting at 19-2 on the season; 7-1 in ACC play. With a stirring victory in the same building that snake-bit the Blue Devils 2 weeks earlier, the Irish surpassed last year's ACC win total with 10 games left on the docket.

The next game on that docket pits Mike Brey against his former boss at the site of Jabari Parker's first ACC loss last year. This season, Parker is gone, but two new conference player-of-the-year candidates will take the floor in a headlining ACC matchup. While Jahlil Okafor has more than lived up to his impressive billing, no one should discount the impact Jerian Grant has had in his return to Notre Dame's roster.

We're going to use this post to run down the Duke roster and get you familiar with their personnel, style-of-play, and stats on the season. Then we'll dive in to match-up's and where the Irish might find opportunities or face vulnerabilities.

Duke's Roster

TL;DR = Okafor is good, but they're not a one-man-show.

Discussion of the Blue Devils has to begin with freshman big-man Jahlil Okafor.  Listed at 6'11" and 270lbs, he is the presumptive #1 pick in this spring's NBA draft. Agile for his size, Okafor combines strength, low-post footwork, and excellent hands to punish opponents. He's more than capable of lowering his shoulder to create space and has the touch to finish 67.1% of his two-point FG attempts. He's played great basketball against some of his toughest competitors this season. He scored 13 on 6-8 shooting vs. Frank Kaminsky in Madison, where Duke went on to win by 10. Against Louisville's Montrezl Harrell, he put up 18 on 8-10 shooting in Duke's 11 point victory in the Yum! Center. It isn't just his scoring or gaudy shooting percentage that makes Okafor special. His all around game is excellent. His offensive and defensive rebounding rates are both outstanding and he blocks over a shot a game. He plays good defense without fouling. As a freshman big man playing 75% of his team's minutes, he's yet to foul out of a game. This guy is certainly something special, and worth the tanking going on.

While Okafor casts a long shadow over the rest of the Duke line-up, it would be foolish to look at them as a solo act. Senior Quinn Cook leads the Blue Devils in minutes played and the 6'2", 185lb guard is one of the nation's most efficient offensive players. He leads Duke with 50 made 3's and shoots 38.8% from deep. Cook is also Duke's best ball handler, with their lowest turnover rate at 13.2%. Cook made some huge shots to get Duke back on top after trailing St. Johns by as many as 10 in the second half in MSG. He's a battle-tested veteran.

Tyus Jones is the second wave in Coach K's tsunami of youthful talent. The 6'1", 190lb freshman from Minnesota is the leading assist man for Duke and has the ball in his hands most of the game. His 27.8% assist rate is tremendous, and no doubt helped by his classmate's high shooting percentage. If Duke fans have any worries with Jones, it could be his turnover rate. He's had 2 or more turnovers in each of Duke's last 5 games, including 4 on Sunday in NYC. The one thing Duke doesn't have to worry about with Jones is making them from the stripe. Jones is shooting an amazing 88.5% from the line in his freshman campaign, including key ones to close out games.

Freshman Justise Winslow is next up on the Duke roster in terms of minutes played this season. The impressive 6'6", 225lb athlete appears to be a little banged up. Winslow only played 10 minutes in the St. John's game and put up a single 3-point shot attempt. It is a testament to the depth of the Duke team that they were able to absorb the loss of such a talented player in that match-up and still go on to win by 9 on the road. If Winslow is good to go in South Bend, he brings a solid 34.9% shooting percentage from behind the arc. The only knock on the young freshman is his poor 56.8 FT percentage. He's a long, strong and athletic defender capable of shutting guys down in big games.

Juniors Amile Jefferson and Rasheed Sulaimon are next up on the Duke roster in terms of percent of minutes played on the season. Jefferson brings 6'9" length to the Blue Devil line-up, where the 6'5" Sulaimon brings 41.8% 3 point shooting for instant offense. Jefferson does a tremendous job contributing primarily with defense and rebounding, but he can also be a potent scorer, putting up 19 in Duke's win at Louisville. Sulaimon has had an up-and down season scoring 13 in Duke's 14 point victory over Pitt, but none against Louisville in 15 minutes and only 4 against St. John's in 16 minutes of play.

Sophomore Matt Jones seems to be working his way back in to the lineup getting 24 minutes against St. John's. The 6'5", 210lb sophomore grabbed 6 boards in 24 minutes in MSG. Seven-foot junior Marshall Plumlee also saw a spike in minutes at MSG, rebounding and defending and making his lone shot attempt.

Schedule and the Stats

TL;DR = Teams have had to shoot the lights out to beat them

Coach K has a lot of levers to pull with this Blue Devil team. Despite the experience of guys like Cook and Sulaimon, the main guy with the ball in his hands and the leading scorer are both freshman, and there have been a few times this year they've looked like freshmen. This is a team that beat Wisconsin by 10 in Madison in the ACC/BigTen Challenge and went in to the Yum! Center and handled Louisville by 11. Both were incredibly impressive wins and Duke controlled both games.

The Blue Devils also dropped a home game to Miami in the biggest surprise of the ACC season so far. Perhaps it was a hangover from the 12 point drubbing they took at the PNC center 2 days earlier, but it was certainly unexpected. Looking at those 2 losses, Duke's FG% defense was poor in both those games with both opponents well over 50% shooting from the floor.

Let's break down the "4 factors" components of those four games.

Duke eFG Opponent eFG Duke TO Opponent TO Duke OREB Opponent OREB Duke FTA/FGA Opponent FTA/FGA
Duke Season Average 56.5 46.2 16.9 19.1 37.5 28.3 43.9 24.4
Win over Wisconsin 12/3 72.8 49.0 16.1 12.9 15.0 28.6 39.1 38.9
Loss to NC State 1/11 42.3 63.3 14.3 14.3 36.4 28.1 40.0 30.0
Loss to Miami 1/13 48.5 60.7 20.3 14.9 40.5 20.0 30.3 53.6
Win over Louisville 1/17 53.4 32.8 16.7 16.7 20.0 40.0 53.5 26.2

Well, this is easy, isn't it? Just shoot the lights out and hope they're off. Problem solved.

The Blue Devils managed to hold an experienced and efficient Badger team well below their season average from the floor with solid defense. That's what made their defensive collapse in that 2 game stretch vs. NC State and Miami so curious. From an outside observer, it looked like Duke was riding their top ranking and a wave of low end opponents down I-40 to the PNC Center. NC State shot 12 percentage points better than their season average from the floor, and in that frenzied atmosphere, Duke struggled to score the ball. State has a few big bodies, but pretty much let Okafor go off for 23 on 8-10 shooting while holding everyone else mostly in check.

The following game, in Cameron, lack of defense stunned Duke fans again, as Miami hit ten threes on twenty attempts. Equally important, Miami got up and harassed Duke in to 15 turnovers. Every Duke player that played more than 8 minutes in that game had 2 or more turnovers.

After a stunning 2 game losing streak, Coach K faced a daunting trip to Louisville. Armed with star Montrezl Harrell to match up with Okafor, and Wayne Blackshear, the Cardinals seemed like a real threat to hand Duke a shocking 3 game in-conference losing streak. Of course, you don't get to 1,000 wins without learning to make some adjustments. Coach K shocked a lot of people by going to a 2-3 defense against Rick Pitino's team, and took advantage of dismal Louisville shooting from the perimeter. The Cardinals kept jacking 3 after 3, making only 16% of their 25 attempts from deep. Duke also took care of the ball against a good defensive team, turning it over 10 times.

Krzyzewski's move to the 2-3 was as surprising as it was effective vs. Louisville. Duke showed it again Sunday in New York City, and in his taped congratulations for Coach K's 1,000th victory, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim joked about his USA Basketball colleague borrowing his 2-3 look. Against St. John's, Coach K added a wrinkle by going with a super-sized lineup with Okafor holding down the center of the 2-3 and deploying future Army officer Plumlee to show his hustle, length, and rebounding on the wing.

The Match-Up

TL;DR = Use ball pressure to disrupt them, then run them, then run them some more.

If you're an Irish fan with access to the Grotto, please go down and light a candle tonight that Duke decides to stick with that 2-3 zone Wednesday night. Not only are we filled with pleasant memories of the last time a highly rated squad with a Hall of Fame coach came in to the JACC and tried to play a 2-3, we also know ND has the shooters and passing ability to carve up a zone.

Before we go there, let's look at how the numbers stack up so far this year. Neither team played much of a non-conference schedule, so let's look at numbers form our 8 and their 6 ACC games so far. Our similar conference SoS, according to, makes this a very fair comparison.

Duke has the 3rd best offensive efficiency in the league, checking in at 111.7 (points per 100 possessions), and they clock in right around 68 possessions/game. That's a bit faster than ND's 64/gm, but not a huge concern, because ND certainly can run when given the opportunity. Moreover, Brey has usually emphasized transition defense above offensive rebounding, so being run out of the gym is hardly a concern. Driving Duke's efficiency on the offensive end is 51% eFG shooting and 36% offensive rebounding rates. You can certainly see when Okafor goes to work on the offensive glass, he's good for an easy 2 more often than not. Going back to Duke's 2 losses, you can see dramatic drop off's in their shooting against Miami and NC State. Both of those teams have small, good defensive guards in guys like Cat Barber and Angel Rodriguez. State seemed willing to concede 23 points to Okafor while Miami's Tonye Jekiri managed to harass Okafor in to 6-13 shooting and only 15 points.

Of the 2 strategies, I think the Irish would be well served to concede Okafor his points and ask Auguste to do what he can without fouling. I think coming off a big night in Raleigh, the junior big man is up for the challenge. We've talked a lot about defensive adjustments, and whether or not ND should double the post on the catch. It is tempting to throw bodies at the big man, but I'm not sure it'll matter. Rather than get in a situation where guys like Cook, Jones, Sulaimon, and Winslow to have an opportunity to heat up, the Irish could try to play the PoY candidate straight up and try to force him to shoot over Auguste, Colson, Torres and/or Geben. I'd never advocate for flopping, but if Brey has any classic Vlade Divac tapes, it might not be a bad time to cue a few up.

I think there are 2 keys for the Irish to slow down Okafor. First, they need to run him. Zach Auguste looked great running the floor Sunday night in Raleigh. He basically ran Abdul-Malik Abu and BeeJay Anya off the floor. By playing in the open floor, Auguste can use his speed advantage and hopefully fatigue Okafor. Second, the perimeter guys have to work to crank up the ball pressure. No Duke perimeter player should be allowed a clear entry pass into the post. The Irish need to use ball pressure to keep Okafor from getting deep touches while in prime post position. Push Duke's offense 20+ feet from the rim.

To achieve this, Mike Brey has to turn loose the Demetrius Jackson disruption machine. In my incredibly biased opinion, Jones hasn't been matched up with a talent like DJ yet, and I think the Irish have an advantage in this match-up. DJ should make Jones work for every millimeter of progress on the floor. If he's able to turn Jones over 4+ times, the Irish can turn that in to instant offense, and those are 4 less touches for Okafor.

Of course, it isn't just DJ. Grant will likely pick up Cook, who St. John's turned over 3 times. Grant's combination of length, speed, and basketball IQ don't just apply on the offensive end, and he'll need to keep the Devil's senior leader in check.

If Winslow goes, Steve Vasturia will draw him at first, and if not, we'll see Vasturia pick up Sulaimon. Either matchup will be a challenge for Vasturia, but certainly one he can handle. V.J. Beachem will give up some strength in the Winslow matchup, but should be fine keeping up with either. That leaves Pat Connaughton to pick up Jefferson, an infrequent shooter, but a critical person for the top Irish rebounder to keep off the glass. Again, this isn't a matchup that should panic Irish fans.

If Mike Brey should himself make the surprising decision to deploy his 2-3 zone Wednesday night, let's all hope it shows more energy and movement than it did in Raleigh. The Irish once again looked static and uninspired in their 2-3 defense. Duke's above average passing ability and balance of inside/outside threats would seemingly make them a bad candidate for effective use of the zone.

When we have the ball, the story is similar. Notre Dame's ability to space you out and exceptional passing seem to be the perfect antidote to the 2-3. I think Coach K will deploy his usual man pressure against his old assistant. If this is the case, look for a heavy dose of sideline screen-and-roll with Auguste getting looks for Grant, Jackson, and possibly Connaughton. With either Vasturia or Beachem keeping the defense honest with a sideline drift, we want to do everything we can to suck Okafor out of the paint and unavailable to protect the rim when Jerian or DJ go in to attack mode. Again, Auguste has the speed to cause trouble on the roll like he did vs. UNC. Look for sideline screen-and-roll early and often. Hopefully, with results like this:

Mike Brey has used smaller lineups to great success in this ACC season, and it certainly bears consideration vs. the Blue Devils. Offensively, Okafor will struggle to stay in front of whoever he'd be forced to guard on the perimeter, forcing Duke to either play the zone or take him off the floor. As Brey pointed out in his postgame comments in Raleigh, other ACC teams have matched Irish small-ball lineups by going small themselves. I don't expect Duke to follow suit. Okafor is too valuable, and unless we can draw some early foul trouble, something that would be completely out of character, he's going to play 35+ minutes on Wednesday. If the Irish are able to apply so much ball pressure to limit entry passes and generate turnovers, ND might go small, but if they do, efficiency on the offensive end will be paramount.

To be efficient, Notre Dame also needs to look for early offense. In addition to using tempo to grind down Okafor, the Irish have the weapons to get clean looks from behind the arc when they push the pace. In the end, that's likely to be the key for the Irish. Can they knock down clean looks in transition? Against teams like NC State, Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech, the Irish have been able to absorb some poor shooting nights from key guys. Wednesday doesn't afford ND that same opportunity. In a previous thread, I wrote that the difference between this Brey team and those of the past is the balance of shooting and scoring deep in to the roster. Beachem can go 0-fer and we still have guys who can step up and drain shots. That's great insurance against upsets and could spell a nice run in to the spring if our performance merits a favorable seed. It also gives you the recipe to pull off a great win against a storied program in a place that's known for them. The Irish have 5 legitimate 3-point threats that can all put the ball on the floor and go by you too. To send Duke back home with another South Bend loss, Notre Dame is going to need at least 3, and preferably 4 of those guys to have very good shooting nights by knocking down good looks from deep. If we can get a couple to go early and get the JACC rocking, we might be able to rattle some of Duke's youth and get on top of them early.

Any way you look at it, it is shaping up to be a monster game. A Duke victory brings us back to them in the loss column and would drop us in to a jumble of 2 loss teams in ACC play. An Irish victory would ensure at least a continued tie for second in the league as Duke goes to Virginia Saturday in a game that could bring the entire league back together or put Duke in a very uncomfortable position going forward.

If you have the good fortune of being a Notre Dame student, please RUN, don't walk, to the ticket office and get in this game. Rally the Lep Legion for an epic performance and make the time to support this amazing bunch of guys. Perhaps you'll be treated to a reenactment of this NDMSPaint masterpiece.