Commentary

These Devils are not afraid to ugly it up

Originally Published: March 26, 2010
By Dana O'Neil | ESPN.com

HOUSTON -- Asked if he liked to play defense, Kyle Singler -- still haggard and exhausted after a brutal game more befitting a gridiron than a hard court -- grinned a mischievous grin and crinkled his eyes in joy.

"I love it,'' he said.

Timeout.

That's Kyle Singler.

Of Duke.

As in Duke, the pretty boys of college basketball, the program chronically labeled too soft, too passive, too darned pretty by the basketball aristocracy.

He's not supposed to like defense. He's supposed to view defense as the place to catch your breath before launching another 3-pointer.

"I think it comes from when I played football in high school,'' said the former free safety. "I liked hitting people.''

Time to reassess, people. This is not your Christian Laettner Duke team. Or your J.J. Redick Duke team. Or your Gerald Henderson Duke team. Take every stereotype you've held fast about the Blue Devils and hurl it.

[+] EnlargeDuke Defense
Mark J. Rebilas/US PresswirePurdue never got much of anything going offensively Friday night against the Blue Devils.

These Blue Devils like to play defense. And they're really pretty good at it. Good enough, in fact, to just turn the tide on Purdue, the stingiest team in a Big Ten that prefers to score points only on the solstice.

Duke out-down-and-dirtied the Boilermakers, 70-57, to advance to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2004 -- a hiccup by most programs' standards, but a Dust Bowl era drought by Duke's.

Think that's a coincidence?

"Probably not,'' Brian Zoubek admitted. "The reason we're here is our defense.''

The most maligned top seed in this NCAA tournament now remains as one of just two No. 1s to survive to the Elite Eight. Maybe along the way Duke has even silenced a few critics.

"We're a lot better,'' Jon Scheyer said. "In the past a lot of people said, and it was accurate, that we would have a hard time because we were smaller and too much of an offensive team to win games, especially games like this one. This team now has a lot more toughness.''

The toughness comes in all forms: not blinking when they can't score, outrebounding Purdue by 21, and yes, setting screens that serve as brick walls, a la Zoubek on Chris Kramer.

Certainly Purdue helped the Devils' cause. Since losing Robbie Hummel to a season-ending knee injury, the Boilermakers have struggled to put together any sort of offense. They needed overtime to put up 63 against Texas A&M in the second round, mustered 16 in one half against Michigan State and, even more memorably, 11 against Minnesota.

But Duke has been clamping down on everybody this season. This isn't a flash in the pan cooked up for the tournament; this is a decisive change in scheme.

Mike Krzyzewski has been preaching defense at his teams forever. It just hasn't always sunk in. It didn't always have to. Duke long has been able to mask its defensive inefficiencies with its offensive prowess. This group looked in the mirror and saw a team that could score but wasn't necessarily prolific.

They looked around the locker room and instead of a sea of guards discovered a forest of big men.

They saw the memories of their greatest achievements stretching farther and farther in the rearview mirror.

"Why the change? A lot of tough experiences, a lot of losses,'' Zoubek said. "Losses because of our defense. We knew we weren't tough enough on defense and we had to start doing all the little things, the dirty work to get better.''

So the Devils turned practices into rugby scrums. They put on their knee pads, thigh pads and mouth guards and dug deep for the tenacity they knew they were lacking. They played team defense and worked separately, big men at one end of the floor, guards at the other. Regardless of the setup, the attitude was the same: 100 percent all-in.

We knew we weren't tough enough on defense and we had to start doing all the little things, the dirty work to get better.

-- Duke center Brian Zoubek

Zoubek pointed to an old purple bruise on his right forearm as evidence of what goes on every day.

The result: Duke is holding its opponents to just 61 points per game on the season, and since the postseason began, 55.6 per game.

Never was the change more evident than against Purdue.

Short-handed, Matt Painter knew he'd need to ugly it up to have a chance -- and fortunately, the Boilermakers are master artists of ugly. The two teams combined for 47 points in the first half. Purdue shot only 30 percent in those first 20 minutes, yet somehow Duke was worse, at 24 percent.

And the thing is, the Blue Devils didn't care.

A year ago, Duke emerged from its halftime locker room down just three to a high-powered Villanova team. The Blue Devils decided to go bucket for bucket with the Wildcats and failed miserably, losing the second half 51-31 en route to a 77-54 thumping.

Calling on the memory of that game, the Devils stayed patient against the Boilermakers, waiting for the chance to break open the game.

It came midway through the second half. With Purdue on the ropes, Nolan Smith provided the knockout punch, scoring seven points in a row to push the lead to nine. The exhausted Boilers would never threaten again.

"We wouldn't have won this game last year, I don't think,'' Singler said. "Now, this is just who we are. We're a more complete team. We can find a way to win.''

And it doesn't have to be pretty anymore.

Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at espnoneil@live.com.

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