After dominating Kentucky to open the season, many thought the Duke Blue Devils were unstoppable. Gonzaga might have just exposed them.
“College basketball wakes up to the Duke takeover.”
“Can the Blue Devils go undefeated?”
“Duke Could Beat the Cavaliers This Season.”
Wednesday was supposed to be just another headline to add to the list, another chapter in a book detailing one demolition after another. But on a night where the Duke Blue Devils seemed destined to dazzle the nation, win the Maui Invitational, and flex their blue-blooded muscles yet again, it was the Gonzaga empire that showed its brawn.
The Zags didn’t do it with five-star freshmen. They didn’t do it with highlight jams. They did it with smart, well-coached basketball, playing to their strengths for 40 minutes. And in the process, they provided the college basketball universe a blueprint for beating the team that so many across the nation believed was untouchable.
While the game finished 89-87, it was never quite as close as the scoreboard indicated. Duke made a late run and almost won thanks to Gonzaga’s poor free throw shooting down the stretch, but make no mistake about it, this was a clinic from the opening tip. The Zags maintained a double-digit lead for most of the contest, dissecting a Duke defense that had looked stout through its first five games.
Credit Rui Hachimura for leading the offensive effort. The junior forward from Toyama, Japan put up 20 points to go along with seven boards and five assists, shooting an efficient 50% from the floor. He did it with an uncanny midrange game, pulling up from just around the free-throw line and nailing short jumpers. He did it with aggressive pursuits of the basketball, turning second or third chances into points around the rim. Most importantly, though, Hachimura went toe-to-toe with Zion Williamson and came out unscathed. He challenged him defensively, pushing back when Williamson tried to bully him with size, and offensively, using Williamson’s hyper-aggressiveness to draw contact and get to the line. With NBA scouts ready to salivate at the sight of Williamson and the rest of Duke’s freshman foursome, it was Hachimura that commanded their attention all night.
It wasn’t just Hachimura that led the way for the Zags, though. Mark Few got contributions up and down the roster, and while the rest of his unit might not possess the elite talent that Hachimura does, they perfectly played the part of cogs in Few’s well-oiled machine.
Right at the outset, those contributions came in the form of creating mismatches on offense. Gonzaga was able to space the floor with shooters, forcing Marques Bolden to defend the perimeter. Williamson, RJ Barrett, and Cam Reddish might be able to guard one through five, but Bolden is a more prototypical back-to-the-basket center that lives in the paint and isn’t used to contesting on the perimeter. You can see just how uncomfortable he is stepping beyond the free throw line.
On two consecutive possessions to open the game, Gonzaga got the ball to capable three-point shooters in Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, both of whom were guarded by Bolden. Clarke hesitated a bit before knocking his three down, likely surprised that Bolden gave him so much space. This poor defense was on display later in the first half as well.
This time, Bolden completely lost sight of Filip Petrusev, allowing him to flash open at the top of the key. When he finally realized where his man is, Bolden gave a weak closeout and allowed Petrusev to hit the wide open three.
Gonzaga showed all night that Duke’s kryptonite this season will be versatile bigs. The Blue Devils are far less deep than usual, particularly at guard, so Mike Krzyzewski seldom likes to play Williamson at the five in small ball lineups. This leaves guys like Bolden, Jack White, and Antonio Vrankovic alone on the perimeter to guard more capable big men. The Zags made them pay for it Wednesday night, and they didn’t even have Killian Tillie on the floor, one of the best three-point shooting big men in the country. Because of the positionless nature of Williamson, Barrett, and Reddish, Duke switches on almost all ball screens, so creating mismatches and forcing Bolden to guard shooters and quicker players will be a formula for teams going forward.
Duke struggled to contest the perimeter all night, and it showed in the numbers. Gonzaga shot 52.6% from three, hitting 10 of 19 shots. The Zags aren’t the only team that’s had success from beyond the arc against Duke either. Part of the reason Army was able to stay in the game against Duke for so long was the ability of their bigs to knock down triples. Alex King and Ben Kinker, both of whom stand at 6’8, hit five threes in that game, and Army shot 39% (12-31) from deep. Until Coach K tightens the screws, his team will continue to be susceptible to shooters taking advantage of bigger defenders.
Offensively, Duke’s freshmen finally looked the part of freshmen, and it became increasingly clear throughout the night that the Blue Devils weren’t running any particular actions. Their freshmen routinely resort to isolation ball in the halfcourt, which often works because they’re so uber-talented, but it’s not always sustainable. Duke may have put up 87 points, but their lack of offensive complexity stunted them down the stretch. Their last four possessions ended in RJ Barrett misses on isolation drives, three of which were blocked.
Clarke and Hachimura were baiting Barrett and Tre Jones, just waiting to leap up and block shots out of the air. A dump-off pass to Javin DeLaurier was never even a thought, and the Zags knew that. They were comfortable playing man defense and helping out at the rim, doubling when necessary. Duke’s offensive simplicity and proclivity for resorting to isolation plays doomed them in the final minutes, and they finished the game making just 24 of 55 shots in the paint, a mere 44% clip.
The most telling block was the last one in the above video by Hachimura, who waited for Barrett to spin off his right shoulder before pouncing to swat the floater. Gonzaga’s frontcourt was ready for this move all night, waiting for Barrett and Williamson, both natural lefties, to spin off their right shoulder to lay the ball in, and that’s where the help defense came into play. Clarke tallied six blocks mostly in this fashion.
Finally, Gonzaga won this game because they limited points in transition. Barrett and Williamson thrive when they can get out and run, and the only way that happens is off turnovers. The Zags protected the basketball, limiting themselves to 11 turnovers, and between the few turnovers and the high percentage looks on offense, there wasn’t much room for Duke to push. For a team that relies so heavily on scoring in transition, to the tune of 26.4 points per game, Duke wasn’t able to play at their pace. The Zags limited them to just 14 transition points, and actually put up 17 of their own. When the Blue Devils are forced into running most of their offense in the half court, they simply aren’t as polished, and it showed.
Of course, not every team has the personnel that Gonzaga does, nor the pedigree. Mark Few has the highest winning percentage of all active coaches for a reason. Teams will try to mimic what they saw from Few’s team Wednesday night, though. They’ll create mismatches on the perimeter with Bolden through ball screens. They’ll double in the paint and play Duke’s stars off their right shoulders. They’ll do their best to take care of the ball and not let Duke finish with highlight transition dunks that feel more like ten points than two. Most importantly, they’ll force Duke to make some serious adjustments if they want to win a National Championship.
The gauntlet has been thrown down. Let’s see if Duke can answer the call.
Edited by Robert Hess.
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