Before the postseason arrived, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski was preparing his team for it.
Before Duke’s regular-season finale at North Carolina, Krzyzewski mentioned that, for the past few games, the Blue Devils had been trying things out in games, mostly on defense, to test their viability for the NCAA tournament. Moves like the three-quarter court press against Clemson — yes, that slowed the Tigers, but it at so showed Duke could execute it against a postseason opponent, too.
Then against the Tar Heels, Krzyzewski did it again.
With Justise Winslow in foul trouble, Tyus Jones sidelined with back spasms, and Jahlil Okafor grabbing some rest, Duke’s star trio were all on the bench together. And, since the Blue Devils only have eight scholarship players, that meant everyone else was on the floor — Quinn Cook, Grayson Allen, Matt Jones, Amile Jefferson and Marshall Plumlee.
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That group took the floor facing a three-point deficit. When Okafor and Tyus Jones returned two minutes, later, it was a two-point lead.
While Jefferson, Matt Jones and Allen combined for 64 minutes in total, all three made their only shots of the game during that stretch, when Duke needed them most. Jefferson had a tip-in that pulled Duke to within one. Matt Jones hit a step-back 3 that gave Duke the lead back for good. And, after Krzyzewski opted to leave that group out there after the under-12 media timeout, Allen hit a 3, too.
"My staff said, ‘Let’s get Jah in,’ and I said ‘no, no, these guys, we’re winning because of those guys. Let’s keep them in,’" Krzyzewski said. "The other thing is you never know — this game we felt like would be a big-time NCAA game.
"And so for them to get that experience after doing something, and then coming after timeout — it’s a good show of confidence on our part. I hope they know that I believe in them anyway, but it’s a good way of doing it."
Krzyzewski has been working to get his reserves experience all year, even when there were 10 scholarship players. There was a moment, for instance, in Duke’s November nonconference game against Furman when Krzyzewski called timeout with 30 seconds left in the half. He put in Allen and ran a play that was designed to get him and Matt Jones open for a 3-point attempts, and Allen swished his shot at the buzzer.
Krzyzewski spoke then of how the Blue Devils needed to get Allen ready, because teams never know when they might need a player to step up (Krzyzewski probably had no idea at the time that he, would, in fact, need Allen to be ready for a bigger role in just three months). And Allen isn’t the only reserve Krzyzewski has turned to — Matt Jones fits that bill, too.
And, like Allen against UNC, he was ready when Duke needed him.
"Matt, he only has one bucket in the game," Krzyzewski said. "We’re down 51-50, and he steps back and knocks that thing down. I love that, that he knows we have enough confidence in him and he has enough confidence in him to take it."
Krzyzewski was also pleased that, while the reserves were winning back the lead, Tyus Jones, Winslow and Okafor were "cheering like crazy," Krzyzewski said, from their seats on the bench. That’s something that makes this team special, Krzyzewski said.
"I’m not saying we have a great team, but I have a special group of guys," he said. "We have such a together group. Again, it’s on them. They really pull for each other."
And now, after 31 regular-season games (and a 28-3 mark in said games), it’s time to stop preparing for the postseason. It’s finally here.
Duke vs. N.C. State
3 Things to Watch
1) How does Duke stop Ralston Turner and Trevor Lacey?
In the one and only meeting this season, the Pack backcourt duo combined for 37 points on 54.5 percent shooting from the field. Duke will need to do a better job of staying in front of the Wolfpack guards to prevent easy baskets
2) How does Jahlil Okafor defend the pick-and-roll?
Part of stopping Turner and Lacey involves defending better against ball screens. Early in ACC play, every team was trying to draw Jahlil Okafor out away from the basket and make him defend off of a high ball screen. That’s not his strong suit, and teams created open lanes to the basket for themselves as a result. Okafor has improved in that department, and even drew praise from Notre Dame head coach Mike Brey after shoring that issue up in the second game against the Irish. But he’ll need to be prepared for that move throughout the postseason
3) Will Justise Winslow be the difference?
Winslow was ineffective against State, shooting just 3-of-13 from the field. He was also dealing with a fractured rib, something he has gotten better at with time. If he plays more like he has of late, then N.C. State will be facing a much better Duke team.
Duke vs. Pitt
3 Things to Watch?
1) How much zone does Duke play?
The only game against Pitt came directly after the debut of the Duke zone against Louisville, and the Blue Devils still used it a lot against the Panthers. Do they do that again, or test out the man-to-man?
2) Are the Blue Devils properly motivated?
Yes, it’s officially the start of postseason play, but Duke also handled the Panthers easily in Durham. This group tends to play its best in big games—it’s the not-so-big games (Virginia Tech most recently) where sometimes the Blue Devils let an inferior opponent stick around.
3) Will a different Justise Winslow make a difference?
Winslow was ineffective against Pitt, shooting just 2-of-7 from the field. He was also dealing with a fractured rib, something he has gotten better at with time. If he plays more like he has of late, then the Panthers will be facing a much better Duke team.