Duke D carries the day against Zags
NEW YORK -- Look, this Duke team isn't going to be some scintillating offensive juggernaut.
Sure, there will be games when Jon Scheyer is stroking 3s and doing his J.J. Redick impersonation on the perimeter. Kyle Singler will have his nights when he is a matchup nightmare. Nolan Smith will find the holes in the opposing defense and get to the rack to finish.
But it won't happen enough to make this a squad that will dominate the game offensively, pushing the ball and loading up the numbers. Nope. If you want to settle in this winter with Duke, be prepared for a team that will have a defensive identity first, something that will sometimes make games as ugly as Saturday's first half against Gonzaga, during which the two teams combined for a dozen points in the first nine minutes at Madison Square Garden.
"That's the best we've been defended all year,'' said Gonzaga coach Mark Few after the Zags were humbled 76-41, their worst loss since a 1990 WCC tournament game against Loyola Marymount and the fewest points for Gonzaga since scoring 40 at Iowa on Nov. 26, 1984. "Most of the shots were contested. We had no easy looks.''
The Blue Devils did get nice scoring performances out of guards Smith (24) and Scheyer (20). But the hallmark of this game and of this team will be defense.
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said the Blue Devils have the veteran players who understand the value of playing D. He said they have taken the assignments from shootarounds and practice and applied them into game situations.
"It's not at the level of our Olympic team, but they talk about defense and how they're going to defend,'' Krzyzewski said.
No player may exhibit the defensive focus for this squad more than 7-footer Brian Zoubek. He played 19 minutes, grabbed four boards, scored four points and blocked one shot, but he altered plenty more, and Robert Sacre's 2-of-11 night had a lot to do with Zoubek's length.
"If the only thing I do is intimidate guys in the lane, maybe they'll think twice about it,'' Zoubek said.
"Zoubek isn't going to block many shots, but he has become such a disciplined player this year,'' Krzyzewski said. "He doesn't bring the ball down on offense, when he gets a rebound he keeps it up and keeps his hands up. He's big. We're not going to go crazy about pressuring the ball to get a [five-second count, which they did on Matt Bouldin]. If I had four really quick, smaller guys, then we'd go after people like we had in the past when we had Chris Duhon.''
So yes, this will be a team that relies on its height and length inside to be disruptive with Zoubek, Miles, Mason Plumlee, Ryan Kelly and defensive-oriented starter Lance Thomas, even though he's not in the 6-foot-10 range.
Gonzaga was 1-of-10 on 3s, and the only thing that preserved the Zags' 537-game streak with at least one 3-pointer was Bol Kong's trey with 10 seconds left. The 27.8 percent shooting; the awful day for Sacre; the 1-of-7 performance from Bouldin; the 18 sloppy turnovers; the missed layups and empty possessions were not all Gonzaga's fault. Duke had a lot to do with it. The Blue Devils forced the Zags into consistent mishaps, and it's a good omen going forward.
"They were dialed in every time I had the ball,'' Bouldin said. "There were no driving lanes. They were switching on the on-balls. We shot the ball terrible and at the free throw line it was pretty awful.''
Gonzaga was 10-of-21 from the charity stripe.
"We missed layups, we missed free throws and nobody is defending us at the free throw line,'' Few said. "Duke showed a lot of poise and toughness. They didn't start out real early. It was a wrestling match, an ugly game, but they were able to settle down and make their offense click.
"I'm hoping that this was an aberration."
Bouldin called the game embarrassing and added that the Zags didn't compete. He said Duke played harder in every aspect of the game.
The Zags will have plenty of chances to right this after a terrific start that included a Maui Invitational title. Gonzaga plays Illinois in Chicago, hosts Oklahoma in Spokane and still goes to Memphis in February. But long before that, the Zags open West Coast Conference play with as tough a three-game slate as any contender: road games at Portland, Saint Mary's and San Diego.
The Blue Devils still have nonconference games against Iowa State in Chicago (Jan. 6) and at Georgetown (Jan. 30) and open the ACC schedule against Clemson at home on Jan. 3. To win these games, they'll have to continue to be tough to score against.
"This is the first team in seven or eight years that really understands defense so well, not individually, but together,'' Krzyzewski said. "Our veteran guys, they just know how to play. That veteran group in the first half did not let them score when we got that double-digit lead.''
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.