Getting opinions from writers who saw Duke go down

Yesterday, I put out a piece based more on statistics. This article is a questions and answers format from three Notre Dame sports writers. They saw first hand how the Fighting Irish took down Duke. Providing the answers below are:

Tim O’Malley from Blue & Gold Illustrated

Andrew Owens from Blue & Gold Illustrated

Joe Schueller from One Foot Down

In Notre Dames 2 wins, what was the main defensive game plan against Duke?

Andrew – Both times, head coach Mike Brey chose not to double ACC player of the year Jahlil Okafor, and he torched Notre Dame for much of both games. Brey, however, did not want to pull a defender into the interior and allow Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones or any other players to wreak havoc from beyond the perimeter.

The plan worked, with Notre Dame holding Duke to 73 and 64 points, respectively, in the pair of wins against the Blue Devils.

Tim – Notre Dame isn’t a team that generally doubles the post but Mike Brey made a gutsy decision to solo-cover Jahlil Okafor at all times. His theory was that when Duke really gets rolling, it’s because everyone else is involved, not just Okafor in the post. Okafor handles double teams well (he’s seen it his whole basketball life) and he’s got great poise on the offensive end for a freshman.

Doubling him means one of the four shooters around him is open, and at least three of them (with the possible exception of Matt Jones) can drive at a high level as well.

The Irish won two games in which Okafor seemed “unstoppable” in the post, but the rest of the Blue Devils were controlled. You just have to live with a few trips down the floor in both halves where he makes it look easy against smaller defenders.

Joe – Mike Brey was clear he was willing to play Okafor 1:1, even if it meant he was going to score. In Brey’s mind, Duke is far more dangerous when Cook, Jones, and Winslow are lighting it up from deep. Defensively, Brey was conceding post 2’s to prevent open 3’s. He was willing to live with Okafor going for 20+ every time.

What was different between the lopsided Duke win and the two Notre Dame wins? We’re there big differences in the game plan?

Andrew – The game plan was the same, but to put it simply, Duke was on fire and Notre Dame was not at Cameron Indoor in February. The Blue Devils went on a 43-7 run in the first half and made 17-of-21 shots.

Notre Dame, meanwhile, only shot 39.7 percent from the field and committed 10 turnovers.

Tim – Notre Dame jumped to a 6-0 lead (consecutive threes) and then Duke just WENT OFF in Durham. It was as good of a 15-minute first half display as I’ve seen in my lifetime. They began 8 of 9 from three-point range, Notre Dame seemed overwhelmed by a delirious crowd, and suddenly it was 43-13.

No game plan was going to matter, and the bulk of it was done with Okafor on the bench with two fouls. Duke has never been better than they were for the first 15 minutes of that game. They’d have beaten Kentucky by 10 without being threatened late.

Joe -The game plan was the same every time. Okafor scored 22 in the ND win in South Bend, 20 in the blowout in Durham, and 28 in the ACCT game. The difference was that those were out of 73, 90 and 64 Duke points respectively. The Irish let Duke get out and run during that game in Cameron. There were a few early turnovers that led to open looks from 3, and Duke shot 9-15 from behind the arc. The Cameron Crazies had it dialed up to 11 that afternoon, and the sophomores ND depend on so mightily behind Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton were definitely swept up in that atmosphere. Once the snow ball got rolling downhill, it was hard to stop.

Most of the ACC media assumed the game in the ACCT would be similar to the game in Durham, but ND completely flipped the script. Once again, the Irish were willing to let Okafor get his 20+, but it was ND that did the slashing and driving to the rim. Duke’s defense couldn’t keep Grant and Jackson from penetrating, and the Irish dominated points in the paint. For Duke, no one but Okafor got going, and when the game got tight late, the Irish fouled Okafor, where he missed badly from the FT line to help Notre Dame seal away the victory.

The defense kept the three point shooting in check, was there anything done specifically?

Andrew – Sophomores Demetrius Jackson and Steve Vasturia are two excellent defenders that have bottled up opposing guards and wings often this season. Tyus Jones struggled against Jackson and Vasturia, along with the game plan to always keep a man on the perimeter players, kept Cook in check.

Tim – Notre Dame has a porous defensive interior but their perimeter defenders are quite good, especially Steve Vasturia vs. swingmen and Demetrius Jackson vs. opposing point guards. He was able to neutralize Tyus Jones in the ACC Championship game and Jerian Grant took out his long-time friend Quinn Cook. That allowed Vasturia to slow the vastly improved Justise Winslow and Okafor wasn’t able to beat them by himself (28 points).

Basically Notre Dame’s perimeter locked down on Duke man-to-man in two of the three meetings and was overwhelmed in the contest in Durham.

Joe – Notre Dame elected to play man, stick with shooters, and play Okafor 1:1 with junior Zach Auguste (6’10” 242) and freshman Bonzie Colson (6’5″ 226). Auguste was fantastic against Okafor in the ACCT, which sounds crazy when a guy goes 13-18 from the floor, but Auguste was part of turning Duke over 12 times in that game and did enough to slow up the Blue Devil attack. Colson is a really interesting guy. He’s obviously undersized to deal with Okafor, but he uses his toughness to bang away with his fellow freshman. Colson has 7′ wingspan to harass Okafor just enough to be annoying. ND never doubled Okafor with a perimeter defender. Again, for ND it wasn’t about stopping Okafor, it was about making sure no other Blue Devil hurt them consistently with transition baskets or open 3’s

Who were the main defenders on Okafor?

Andrew – Zach Auguste and Bonzie Colson were the players tasked with guarding Okafor. While both had better moments at some times than others, Brey was content with allowing them to guard Okafor alone.

Particularly in the ACC semifinal, Colson had an excellent game on both ends of the floor and held down Notre Dame’s rebounding efforts.

Tim – First starting center Zach Auguste (shade under 6’10” good athlete) then freshman backup Bonzie Colson (shade over 6’4″ good basketball player). Both (especially Colson) looked overmatched at times, but they gave it to Okafor on the offensive end, combining for 22 points in a win in South Bend (Okafor had 22 with 17 boards) and in a heavy dose in the ACC semi’s, with Colson tearing him up for 17 points in 26 minutes off the bench (Auguste added 8 to offset Okafor’s 28 on 13 of 18 shooting.)

At present, Okafor is a poor defender of pick-and-rolls. Big men that can move give him problems, defensively.

Do they present different styles of defense? Fronting or just fighting for

Tim – They rarely fronted because the help side defenders were locked into staying with shooters. Since Rashad Sulaimon was suspended and power forward Amile Jefferson was sent to the bench in favor of Matt Jones (every name I’ve written for Duke to date is a MCDonald’s All-American, by the way), the Blue Devils have become much harder to guard.

Fronting Okafor requires help, and you can’t leave any of their starting four, plus backup guard Grayson Allen (McDonald’s All-American as well).

The drawback to fighting for position is Okafor is quite good at getting the ball 13 feet away, facing up, taking two dribbles and spinning to the hoop. He’s the most difficult college player to cover down low in some time.

Joe – Mostly, Auguste and Colson played behind and tried to move him out away from the rim. They would occasionally get on top in a 3/4 front, but rarely, because they couldn’t rely on weak side help to prevent the lob. The Irish went primarily man against Duke because they wanted to limit open perimeter looks vs. packing it in with a zone. Auguste and Colson both relied on the guards to apply enough ball pressure to make entry passes more difficult as they tried to root Okafor out of the paint and force his touches 12-18 feet from the rim.

In the games against Notre Dame, Okafor took more free throws than average. Was this intentional? At any point did it become a hack a Shaq like strategy?

Andrew – Not until late in the semifinal win did Notre Dame ‘intentionally’ foul Okafor in Hack-a-Shaq fashion. Mostly, they were content with letting him have his way in the post.

Zach Auguste fouled out of the semifinal game after a pair of late controversial calls, so Colson was the one who fouled Okafor on purpose. He missed both attempts.

Tim – They fouled him intentionally late in the ACC Semi-Finals (despite playing with a lead) but the reality is, Okafor is quick-footed, skilled, and every bit of 6’11” and strong, so if you’re going to guard him with a 6’4″ guy like Colson or even a quality athlete like Auguste, he’s going to make you foul him or it’s a dunk/power layup

But he’s a terrible free throw shooter and it does not get better in crunch time.

Joe – Yes, and ND fans were screaming for more of the “hack-a-for” strategy. Duke scores a KenPom-adjusted 1.22 points per possession, and Okafor shoots 52% from the line. He missed critical ones in both ND victories. If he gets closer than 8 feet to the rim or is in the game at all during crunch time, foul him. In the ACCT, he looked entirely uncomfortable at the line.

Duke only gives teams 9 attempts from the line per game. What did Notre Dame do to get to the line 20+ times?

Andrew – Simply put, it was Notre Dame’s best attacking performance on the offensive end all season. The Irish are commonly thought of as a team that lives and dies beyond the perimeter — and that is often the case — but they only shot eight 3-pointers that game and consistently drove the lane to either produce layups or to go to the line.

Perhaps most surprisingly, Notre Dame made 22-of-25 attempts when it did get to the line.

Tim – Three of Notre Dame’s five starters, Grant, Jackson, and Vasturia, have made a conscious effort to attack the basket since a win at Louisville in early March. Grant said post-game in the win over Duke that “They have trouble keeping players in front of them, so we knew they’d go zone eventually.”

It proved true, and Notre Dame used penetration to dice up Duke’s zone as well. (The trio destroyed North Carolina with repeated penetration in the second half of the ACC Championship.)

The Blue Devils are a legitimately great offensive team but nowhere near the Duke of old on the other end.

Delon Wright will get to the rim against the Blue Devils Friday night.

Joe – Notre Dame is phenomenal at spreading the floor. I detailed some of our offensive sets on One Foot Down in a film review here. You can see we don’t let the opposition get a help defender in the paint.  ND puts multiple shooting threats on the perimeter as our 2 best attacking guards work the pick and roll with one lone big on the floor. We play 4-around-1, but w don’t keep a traditional post man on the block — he’s mostly on the perimeter to draw Okafor out of the paint. Most people assume we spread them out to rain 3’s, but in the Duke game, Brey had his men attack off the bounce using ball screens. During the game in Greensboro, Duke defenders were consistently late on their rotations when the Irish would beat the perimeter defender. That caused a wonderful number of “and-1” opportunities for ND as the guard either finished at the rim or dropped a perfect pass to a cutting teammate ahead of Duke’s rotation. It was beautiful to watch.

In Duke’s home loss to Miami and loss to ND in the ACC semi-final, they gave up a 50% or greater FTRate (FTA/FGA). In both of those game’s Coach K lamented his teams inability to stay in front of penetration. From what I’ve seen, here’s the checklist of tools you need to beat the Blue Devils:

1) Enough perimeter shooting to keep them from playing zone.

2) A post man comfortable on the offensive perimeter to keep Okafor outside the paint on defense.

3) Two perimeter players capable of breaking down a defense off ball screens.

4) A willingness to let Okafor score 20+ points without panicking.

5) Enough post defenders to foul Okafor 7-10 times on the night.

Of course, you can also catch them like ND did in Durham, like NC State did in Greensboro, or like Robert Morris/SDSU have in the tournament. When Duke is locked in defensively and gets to run you in transition — look out — that’s when they’re as dangerous as their 1-seed indicates.


About the author

Grant Bagby

Since moving to Utah in 2005, I have changed from following all sports in D.C/Virginia to following all sports in Utah. I am a Chicago Bulls fan first (Born and raised by my father), but I am also a hardcore Jazz fan with 7 years of being a season ticket holder under my belt. I started TornBySports to write about the BYU/Utah Rivalry after Max Hall ran his mouth.