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Zone defense could drive Duke all the way

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OMAHA — Because it is Grayson Allen, it is impossible to tell, really, the difference between a smile and a smirk. But when people ask — and this weekend, they’re asking — he appears mildly amused.

Can you slap the floor in a zone?

More important, though, is this follow-up: Can Duke win a national championship playing one?

First, let Allen answer: “No, I mean we did it,” he says, referring to the moment late in the first half Friday night against Syracuse when first Allen and then four more Blue Devils slapped the floor — and then settled, like on every other defensive possession, into an amorphous blob that wasn’t quite a 2-3 or a 1-3-1 but most definitely was not man-to-man.

“You can do it,” Allen adds.

He means the floor-slapping. But clearly, Duke can do the zone, too — and it might just be the reason the Blue Devils can win it all.

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No. 2 Duke is into the Elite Eight, an oddsmakers’ favorite against No. 1 Kansas on Sunday afternoon, because of — or maybe in spite of — a young but very talented roster. Four freshman surround Allen, a senior, in the starting lineup. That includes 6-11 forward Marvin Bagley III, who could end up as the first pick in the NBA Draft this June, and 6-11 center Wendell Carter, who might also be a lottery pick. It’s a lineup with plenty of offensive firepower, which is why Duke was the consensus preseason No. 1, and why no one would be surprised if they finished that way.

But it turned out the Blue Devils had a nettlesome problem with defensive intensity. As in, they didn’t have much.

Before we go further, though, let’s get some honesty. Duke assistant Jeff Capel grew up watching Duke basketball, then played there. He slapped the floor. Is it weird to see the Blue Devils in a zo—

“Yes,” he says, laughing. “Yes. It is.”

It might also have been necessary. Consider that since switching exclusively to the zone Feb. 11 against Georgia Tech, Duke is 10-2 and has allowed an average of 62 points — almost 11 points fewer (72.8) than opponents averaged through the first 24 games.

“We were not a good defensive team,” Capel says. “We were basically a team that we outscored you.”

Understand how unusual the move was, on several levels. According to Synergy Sports, only three teams this season played exclusively zone defense: Duke, Syracuse and Washington (which is coached by Boeheim protégé Mike Hopkins). And that’s before we consider how Duke’s brand under Mike Krzyzewski has always been synonymous with “man-to-man … in-your-face pressure,” according to Capel, who recalls how, back when he played, the scouting report never included an opponent’s entire play, “because coach’s thing was, ‘They’d better not be able to reverse the ball.’ They’d get it to here, but we don’t need to go through the rest of it because we’re not gonna let them reverse it.

He adds: “To see us make the switch to zone, at times it is kind of weird. But it’s the right thing for this team, for this particular team.”

If you want to get deep, it’s also probably a byproduct of a fairly significant recruiting shift. Over the last few years, Duke has hauled in higher-rated classes, resulting in younger starting lineups — and for this group, maybe, a lack of buy-in.

“Duke’s always been historically one of the best defensive teams in the country year in, year out,” Kansas coach Bill Self says. “And when we’re playing a ton of freshmen, sometimes that’s a more difficult thing to do.”

Still, Krzyzewski says the…


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