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Bob Sutton | Times-News | March 23, 2018

Duke's defensive transformation propelling Blue Devils to Sweet 16

Versus Breakdown: Syracuse vs. Duke

Duke had just defeated Virginia Tech in a Feb. 14 home game and coach Mike Krzyzewski provided confirmation of something that had become more and more apparent in the preceding weeks.

The Blue Devils are a zone defensive team.

"We will play a lot more zone," Krzyzewski said. "That'll be pretty much our primary defense, complemented by man."

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There wasn't a collective hush throughout the room, but it would have been understandable if there was.

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Duke had long been a hardcore man-to-man defensive team under Krzyzewski. It a trademark for the Blue Devils.

That began to waver a few years ago, some of it coming from influence of Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, who worked on Krzyzewski's staff with USA Basketball.

Duke and Syracuse meet Friday night in the Midwest Region semifinals and all the rage isn't about Syracuse's well-documented 2-3 zone defense.

Duke is in on the zone action as well.

"We communicate better and if you communicate, you have a better chance of playing as one," Krzyzewski said. "We're talking and we're moving. We talk better in the zone. We're more unified in the zone."

The shift for Krzyzewski came in about in part because with recent rosters heaving influenced by freshmen, teaching the man-to-man principles became more difficult throughout the season.

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Krzyzewski said there's a better chance that some of his teams can latch on to the zone quicker, particularly this season's edition that has length and height at most positions.

"In real time, as it's going on, you can help one another and cover up for one another," Krzyzewski said this week.

When Krzyzewski first started turning to a zone set-up several years ago, it was used seldom. It was called "Orange" by the Blue Devils when they would change into that alignment at the defensive end. That's no longer the case.

During a February stretch, Duke won four consecutive ACC games when holding the opponent to less than 60 points for the first time in school history. The Blue Devils limited five straight ACC foe to less than 60 points in 1980-81 (Krzyzewski's first season at Duke), but lost three of those games.

So much of the talk about the Duke zone is about talking.

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"That's what we're stressing and in the zone, in order for it to be played well, has to have that," Krzyzewski said. "And we've had that."

The communication has mostly thrived in the 2-3 zone.

"With us talking (on defense), we're communicating," backup center Marques Bolden said. "We feel like we can defend anybody."

There's no argument from many opponents, who've been unable to crack the lanes. Freshman forward Wendell Carter Jr. often spreads out in the center of the back line, an imposing force in that spot.

Duke's zone has certain perks based on what Boeheim has seen.

"It's different a little bit but they've worked on it and it's progressively gotten better," Boeheim said. "I saw them earlier in the year against Virginia and it wasn't very good, but they've used it now a lot. The more you use it, the better it gets. Most coaches that play man-to-man, they don't practice their zone, they don't play it that much so it's not that good. They're using it, they're practicing it. It's a good zone and their height helps them."

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Krzyzewski, who refers to Boeheim as his closest friend in the coaching profession, said Duke's zone isn't a total copycat of Syracuse's defense. Still, there are plenty of similarities.

"It's kind of like theirs and that's why both zones are good," Krzyzewski said. "The two things that are really the toughest things that you can't simulate when you're playing really good people are length and quickness.

"I think both teams have decent quickness, but both teams have extraordinary length when they're out there. What you think you see, and even if you're in the stands what you think you see, when you're on the court, I'm not sure you'd see it."

Freshman guard Gary Trent Jr. said a big part of clicking in the zone is reading the movements of teammates. He said taking away space is a priority.

Trent said he never gave much thought to playing zone at Duke when he was recruited. Everything was geared toward man-to-man.

"Whatever (Krzyzewski) thinks is best," Trent said.

Krzyzewski has pointed out in recent weeks other tangible benefits stemming from the zone. He said the zone offers another way for senior guard Grayson Allen's leadership to be impactful.

"Up on top, it allows him to lead better," he said.

So it has all come together for the Blue Devils. While they've met Syracuse previously since committing to the zone, it comes full circle with the season on the line Friday night against the Orange.

"It's whatever (works)," Bolden said. "With Duke, you never think of zone. It's still defense."


NCAA: Sweet 16

Midwest Region semifinal

Best moments from Thursday's Sweet 16
Who: No. 11 seed Syracuse (23-13) vs. No. 2 seed Duke (28-7)

When: 9:35 p.m. Friday (CBS)

Where: CenturyLink Center, Omaha, Neb.

Series: Duke leads 6-5, including a 60-44 victory Feb. 24 in Durham

Free throws ...

Duke is 2-0 in NCAA Tournament meetings vs. Syracuse, winning in 1966 in Raleigh and in 1998 in St. Petersburg, Fla. ... Duke ranks sixth nationally in scoring with 84.9 points per game, while Syracuse is 10th nationally in scoring defense by allowing 63.6 points per outing.

Up next: The winner advances to Sunday's regional final against the winner of Friday night's first game between top-seeded Kansas and fifth-seeded Clemson. 

This article is written by Bob Sutton from Times-News, Burlington, N.C. and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to

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