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With 12:21 left in last night’s game against Notre Dame, Duke appeared to be losing it’s grip on the game. The Fighting Irish had switched to a 2-3 zone after Duke scored 8 points in it’s first four possessions of the 2nd half. That spurt gave Duke a 50-37 lead which felt destined to continue to grow. Up to that point Notre Dame had played the zone very infrequently – only three possessions in the first half by my count – but had recorded stops on two of the three.

ND conceded only six points over the ensuing nine possessions, while cutting the deficit to six. Up until then my second half notes read like checklist of ways to get beaten by a zone defense:

  • poor entry passes
  • stagnant perimeter players
  • no dribble penetration or manipulation of D
  • lazy skip passes for turnovers

All of that abruptly ended while Notre Dame knocked down it’s pair of free throws. Duke scored on it’s next 12 possessions – a massive 18-0 run that put the game away for the Blue Devils.

The first possession of that run was Trevon Duval’s three from the left wing. On that possession, Duval threw a pass to Allen who started on the left wing, then made a shallow cut to the foul line. Duval then circled back out to the wing as Allen dribbled to the top of the key. The defender on top of the zone guarding Allen on the wing stayed with him as he dribbled out. At the same time, the defender on the baseline was caught defending a post up. That resulted in an easy pitch-back for a catch and shoot three that Duval knocked down. This “Pull” action was something that Duke would repeat throughout the decisive run with great success. In fact, they ran it again on the very next possession. That time Duval was able to drive past the baseline defender who was closing out hard in response to the made jumper. He found Carter in the middle for layup to push the lead back to 11. Two trips later Gary Trent took advantage of a simple off-ball interchange to find space for another wide open three.

With the zone now extended to account for the increased perimeter activity, Duke was able to get the ball inside. Using easier post entry passes or penetration to the foul line for kick-out shots it rode the wave of momentum to an 86-56 advantage. These movements on by the guards were not complex sets or highly structured. What they were was exactly the kind that are difficult to defend because it requires the defense to communicate and hand cutters off. Notre Dame wasn’t able to rotate effectively to counteract the increased movement. Having a pair of reliable post scorers made defending these actions that much more difficult, because the baseline defenders couldn’t cheat out early.

Seeing Duke make these adjustments on the fly, and not after a timeout or directly out of the half, was very encouraging. If the team can continue to adapt effectively to create space against different defenses, it bodes well for their ability to adjust to unfamiliar schemes in March when there’s little time to scout and prepare.

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