Duke knew the synthesis had changed before this season ever started. The Blue Devils are in line for a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament for the third straight season, but this is far from the same team blown out in the Elite 8 by eventual national champion Louisville a year ago. It all starts up front.
The Blue Devils lost their three leading scorers to graduation from last season, with the most notable departure being center Mason Plumlee. Duke has played the majority of this season without a traditional center, leaving Coach K to work with the hand he was dealt. That hand still includes plenty of talent, and Mike Krzyzewski has been crafty enough to maximize his team's offensive production by spreading the floor with shooters. It's led to Duke becoming one of the most trigger-happy teams in the country from the three-point line, but the lack of a rim protector shows in the team's defense.
Duke starts two McDonald's All-Americans in the frontcourt with freshman phenom Jabari Parker and sophomore Amile Jefferson, but neither is much of a deterrent for opposing teams looking to take the ball to the hoop. Duke entered Tuesday's game with Virginia Tech with only has 89 blocks as a team on the season. Three players (Arizona State's Jordan Bachynski, Manhattan's Rhamel Brown and UNLV's Khem Birch) have more blocks than that individually.
Jefferson is the team's nominal center, but he lacks the size to be a suitable backline defender. At 6'9, 210 pounds, Jefferson is a springy athlete but far from the interior defender good teams usually need. He only has 17 blocks in 30 games this season. With Parker next to him, the paint looks like a red carpet to teams who are able to get by Duke's feisty guards.
The result has been the second worst defense Duke has had in the last 11 years, per Ken Pom. The Blue Devils' adjusted defensive efficiency of 98.4 entering Tuesday places them No. 61 in the country. How big of a deal is that?
Dating back to 2003, no team has won the national championship with a defense outside of the top 20. It's a personnel issue more than anything, but Coach K has adjusted enough to get his team back into the mix as one of the favorites in March. If you can't stop anyone, you might as well make sure the shots you hit count for three points instead of two.
It all starts with the long distance shooting. Duke is a great three-point shooting team this year, with three players shooting 43 percent or higher from deep. Rodney Hood, a transfer from Mississippi St., always projected to be a versatile wing for the Blue Devils, but his outside shot has been a revelation. Hood hit an impressive 36.4 percent of his threes as a freshman for the Bulldogs in 2012, but he's upped his marksmanship this year while increasing his attempts. Hood is knocking down 43.6 percent of his threes on nearly five attempts per game.
It's just not hood. Duke dots the floor with Andre Dawkins off the bench, the fifth-year senior who was a freshman on Coach K's national title team in 2010. Dawkins is a straight gunner, with 128 of his 158 attempts coming from three-point territory this season. Considering he's hitting 45.3 percent of those attempts, it's a beneficial strategy.
The ascent of Rasheed Sulaimon has helped, too. Sulaimon played more than 30 minutes just once in Duke's first 30 games. Since then, he's played more than 30 minutes in six of their last eight. Sulaimon, a sophomore and another McDonalds All-American, is hitting 44 percent of his threes. When Parker (37 percent from three) is a team's fourth best long distance shooter, you know you're going to put up points.
That's exactly what Duke has done. The Blue Devils are No. 2 in the country in offensive efficiency, per Ken Pom. That's largely based on the work they've done from long range. Three-pointers have accounted for 34.7 percent of Duke's total points, the highest rate for a Coach K team in Ken Pom's history and top 25 in the country.
Still, Coach K has been around long enough to know how hard it is to win without a real big man. That's why he's just now revealing the ace he's had up his sleeve the entire season: sophomore center Marshall Plumlee.
Road to the Title
Road to the Title
The third Plumlee to come through Duke has had an agonizing career up to this point. He redshirted as a true freshman and suffered a foot injury that limited him last year. Duke has brought him along slowly, but after playing sparingly most of the season, Plumlee has now logged double-digit minutes in six of his last nine games. He had his best game of the year vs. Syracuse, proving himself to be the active inside presence the Blue Devils desperately need. Coach K says he's going to play more.
With just two regular season games left before the ACC Tournament, Duke has its offense figured out. They're going to come at you with one of the most unstoppable scorers in the country and a legion of shooters ready to fire with just a little bit of space. Will it be enough to overcome a shaky defense? Can Plumlee rescue that side of the ball with so few games left before the Big Dance? It all remains to be seen, but it's safe to say Coach K will try every combination before he figures it out.