For the first three months of this season, Duke basketball in 2014-15 looked a lot like Duke basketball in 2013-14.
You can start with coincidental evidence: both teams were led by a freshman from Chicago who was garnering national recognition for his scoring ability, before becoming a top-two pick in the NBA draft. Jabari Parker was out and Jahlil Okafor was in. Parker and Okafor also contributed to the other thing these two Duke teams had in common: both played very underwhelming defense.
Duke was bounced by Mercer in the Round of 64 a year ago because it couldn't get stops. Mercer scored 1.22 points per possession, Nae-Nae'd its way into the hearts of America and ended Duke's NCAA Tournament run before it ever really began. It was a microcosm of the season for a Duke team that struggled to defend the middle of the paint all year, finishing only No. 119 in defensive efficiency, per Ken Pom.
Duke's defense was better this year, but would it good enough? After being knocked out by Notre Dame in the ACC Tournament finals, Duke entered the NCAA Tournament ranked No. 57 in defensive efficiency. It was clear that this team was better than the one that lost to Mercer, but if you were paying close enough attention the lack of a shutdown defense seemed like a good enough reason to doubt Duke's ability to reach the Final Four.
So much for that.
The way Duke was able to go from a middling defensive team to a great defensive team as soon the NCAA Tournament started is nothing short of amazing. The Blue Devils' defensive efficiency ranking went from No. 57 at the start of the tournament to No. 18 by the start of the Final Four to No. 12 by the time they were cutting down the nets. Coach K built an elite defense seemingly overnight, and it was enough to get him his fifth championship.
No one saw this coming. In games against high major competition this season, Duke only held opponents before .90 points per possession seven times. It did it five straight times to reach the national championship against Wisconsin, and then held the Badgers -- the best offense in college basketball -- to its fifth-worst offensive performance of the year during the biggest game of the season.
How did it happen, exactly?
It's easy to credit Okafor's incremental improvement defensively for the turnaround. While there's some truth in that, it's far from the only reason. Okafor's reputation as a poor defender didn't come out of nowhere, and nothing that happened this tournament will change that. Instead, Duke's perimeter defense was incredible. You can mostly thank three players: Matt Jones, Quinn Cook and Justise Winslow.
On Feb. 25 against Virginia Tech, Coach K put Matt Jones in the starting lineup for Amile Jefferson and shifted Winslow to power forward. It gave Duke more shooting and spacing offensively and put a lockdown defender on the floor. There were reports dating back to the preseason that Coach K really liked what Jones brought to the table, and that one simple substitution went a long way in helping Duke win the title.
The two-way play of Winslow was even more incredible, and at this point it's safe to say he was the breakout player of the tournament. Winslow is all the way up to No. 2 on Kevin O'Conner's NBA Draft board, leaping Okafor. Who would have predicted that when the tournament started?
Duke has been a team defined by great offensive talent for decades, and this squad certainly had great offensive talent. It just wouldn't have mattered much until they started playing defense. There were a lot of things that contributed to title No. 5 for Coach K, but nothing was as important as fixing the defense.
1. The Cameron Crazies are not your friend
The media row in the north end zone of Lucas Oil Stadium was positioned behind the Duke student section, which gave me the opportunity to witness the Cameron Crazies up close for the first time. They were pretty much what I expected: very loud, a little bit obnoxious and ultimately harmless.
Important: Duke fan in a pink YOLO hat pic.twitter.com/igMn0lRFrV— Ricky O'Donnell (@SBN_Ricky) April 4, 2015
As you might have guessed, they love Coach K. When he took court and was announced after the starters, the entire student section started to bow down. Death to false idols:
The Cameron Crazies were led by this delightful fellow, who went the extra mile to apply Joker makeup for the title game:
He spent most of his time standing on his chair to get people jacked up:
I hope this bro one day makes a lot of money and invests all of it in Vox Media. Until then, I don't want to see him again.
2. Jahlil Okafor's dad is America's dad
Let's go over how great Jahlil Okafor's dad is:
a) He made a t-shirt with his son wearing a Biggie Smalls crown:
Proud Papa (of Jah) pic.twitter.com/I0Fiu820Qg— Luke Winn (@lukewinn) April 7, 2015
b) He started a parade in the streets of Indianapolis:
Chucky Okafor (Jahlil's dad) has started a parade in the streets of Indy. A literal parade. He hired a bucket boy. Can't make this up.— Daniel Poneman (@SwagAir) April 7, 2015
c) Seriously, he started a parade:
Life-sized Ninja Turtles, bucket boys and Biggie? Hard to beat.
3) Grayson Allen looks like everyone
Cartoon characters, Republican presidential candidates, Games of Thrones characters ... you know it. And you did:
Why does Grayson Allen look like everyone... pic.twitter.com/61t71OYJOL— Racial Draft (@TheRaceDraft) April 7, 2015
Grayson Allen look like Lino from Shark Tale pic.twitter.com/w74C45mTPu— Donavan McFarland (@DonavanMcfarla1) April 7, 2015
From the moment I first saw Allen, I figured he'd be the talk of the country one day. This was just a little bit sooner than expected for a player who only attempted seven shots in the month of January. Every Duke player said after the game that Allen had been their best practice player all season, and none of them seemed even a little bit surprised by the 16 points he scored in the title game.
Allen got lost in the shuffle even before the season started, which is rare for someone with his recruiting pedigree. He was a McDonald's All-American and the No. 21 prospect in the class of 2014, per ESPN, but he was still overshadowed by Okafor, Winslow and Jones. He might not have ever gotten an opportunity this season if Rasheed Sulaimon wasn't kicked off the team in January.
The skill set was always there. Grayson Allen might look like it, but he has the rare of combination of one day potentially being able to win both a dunk contest and a three-point shootout.
Also, no Grayson Allen tribute is complete without this Vine:
He'll be back next year for Duke, and he might just be their leading scorer. The Grayson Allen takeover is only getting started:
4) I'm buying Tyus Jones' NBA stock
Getting too excited about a player's NBA future based off a few games in the NCAA Tournament is always a dangerous proposition. That can certainly be said for Tyus Jones after incredible run to be named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. From a scouting perspective, there are a few question marks.
You can start with his size. At 6'1, 175 pounds, he's going to be one of the smaller point guards in the NBA. He isn't particularly athletic either, at least not in the NBA sense. Imagining Jones trying to guard Russell Westbrook or John Wall or Date Exum or Kyrie Irving ... you can see why NBA people aren't exactly sold on him.
Objectively, he looks like Tyler Ennis. Ennis, you'll remember, was the freshman leader of a Syracuse team that started 25-0 last season. He was drafted No. 18 overall by the Suns, got traded to the Bucks midway through this season and has only played 28 games as a rookie. The similarities are too much to ignore.
Ennis is actually a little bigger than Jones has measured in the past, checking in at 6'2, 185 pounds with a 6'7 wingspan at the combine. The statistical production was very similar:
|FG%||3PA||3P%||Assists||Steals||Points||True shooting percentage|
Ennis had a knack for hitting clutch shots, too. This isn't to write off Ennis as an NBA prospect either. He hasn't had much of a chance yet, is only 20 years old and could still be very good in Milwaukee under Jason Kidd. With that said, I think I like Jones more as an NBA prospect.
Indianapolis 2015— Tyus Jones (@Tyusjones06) April 5, 2014
That's what Jones tweeted the day Duke lost to Mercer. It might be surprising if Jones has aced every test he's ever taken.
What Jones did to Wisconsin in the final, he's been doing all season. Look the way he took over against the Badgers in December. See what he did to North Carolina in Chapel Hill or the dagger three-pointer he hit against then undefeated Virginia. Or this:
You know who else isn't that big?
Conley is more athletic than Jones is, and that matters. I just can't shake the sense that Jones' shot-making ability and advanced feel for the game is going to make him a pro for a long time. Draft Express has him at No. 21 right now, right around where Ennis was taken last year. It feels right.
It might take Jones a few years before he can before a good pro, but after watching him all season, it's tough to doubt that he'll get there eventually.