I could just repost every Duke post I've ever written as an explanation for why they lost just about any game. Coach K has the same issues every year. For all his greatness, he has several blind spots that get exposed by good teams or bad match-ups. Their two losses this year haven't been bad losses like we've seen in the past. And the team is built a bit differently than most recent Duke teams. But even their wins have exposed some serious problems for this team. In short, Coach K doesn't value rebounding enough and falls in love with his "scorers" even when they aren't shooting well. Let's look at the 3 close games they've played so far to see how this plays out.
First, the way this team is different than previous years is that Duke finally has not just one, but two very talented small forwards in Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood. This position has been a black hole for production recently. So Coach K is justifiably excited about those two guys and wants to play them together as much as possible. That's smart. But he's putting them at the wrong positions when they play together. Parker tops out at probably 6'9 and isn't very wide or muscular. Hood is about the same size, but probably a bit thinner and not was wide.
They are fairly prototypical small forwards. But Coach K puts Parker at power forward and Hood at small forward instead of Parker at small forward and Hood at a shooting guard. This forces Parker to play more around the basket than what is probably natural for him. He's talented enough to do it offensively, though posting him up in order to get him the ball slows down the offense. Defensively he can hold his own at times. But he has trouble moving bigger guys around, instead relying on his athleticism to make up for it. Why is this a problem?
Duke is 211th out of 351 in total points given up per game. That's terrible regardless of what pace the offense is playing, which is probably pretty fast considering they are 19th in total points scored per game. They gave up 90 points to Vermont at home. That shouldn't happen, even against good teams. Vermont only made 4 threes and shot 30% from three. But they shot 75% on 2 point FGs. It wasn't a rebounding problem. They just flat out couldn't stay in front of the ball and keep them from getting good shots. Kansas shot 56% overall and out-rebounded them 36 to 21. Duke's two big men combined for 3 rebounds in 54 minutes. And that's their only role on the team, to play defense and rebound. The only legitimate center on the team, Marshall Plumlee played 3 minutes. He played only 1 minute against Arizona last night. And to my knowledge he is healthy. So I have no idea why he doesn't play more.
Consider the Arizona game last night. Hairston and Jefferson, Duke's "big men", got a combined 7 rebounds in 39 minutes. Arizona's Aaron Gordon had as many rebounds in 8 fewer minutes. I'm focusing on rebounding because while we don't do a great job of guarding the ball, we are only allowing teams to shoot 45% against us, 27% from 3. So aside from Vermont, it's not like every team is getting layups against the defense. The problem is that we are 294th in total rebounds. So when the other team misses a shot on offense, we aren't getting the rebound often enough, thus giving them another opportunity to score. And when we miss a shot on offense, we are letting them get the ball too often, thus giving them more opportunities to score.
When the offense is playing well this isn't a big deal. But when we aren't scoring well it makes it even harder on the offense because they aren't going to get the ball as often as they should in order to make up for inefficient shooting. And that brings me to Coach K's other flaw aside from not valuing rebounding enough, and that's deference to the "scorer". Jabari Parker is this year's "scorer". He's the Kobe Bryant of the team. He can "create his own shot". The problem with this traditional thinking is that it often ignores how efficiently the "scorer" is shooting. Michael Jordan wasn't a great offensive player because he took a ton of shots like Kobe or Carmelo Anthony do. He was great because he made half the shots he took, whereas guys like Kobe and Melo only make about 45% of their shots.
When Parker is playing well offensively he can be efficient. But being a freshman, he doesn't always have good shot selection, forcing up difficult shots that will likely not go in and end up in the hands of the other team. When Coach K lets Parker take inefficient shots he is not only making it harder on the defense because of the other team getting the ball without us gaining points, he's taking away shots from other players. And when Rodney Hood is on your team, it's a bad thing when he isn't allowed to take a more efficient shot than the ones you're letting another player take. Hood is shooting 62% on the year. That's insane, especially considering he takes almost 3 three-pointers per game, of which he's making an insane 63% of. Hood shoots that well in part because he's good at driving and getting a shot close to the basket, which is the most efficient shot on the court, depending on how well you can shoot the 3. He can do this because he's more athletic and stronger than many of the players defending him. So when Parker isn't shooting well or taking bad shots, it's not like Coach K doesn't have other options.
So what should Coach K do different in order to avoid the problems the team has had so far? The thing he has the most control over is who is on the court and at what time they're there. I think Marshall Plumlee has to play more, assuming he's healthy. He isn't as athletic and strong as his brothers were. But he's very tall. And while you don't have to be really tall (in relative basketball terms) to rebound well, it certainly helps. It's worth a try considering Hairston and Jefferson hasn't shown the ability to do it. Though, while I don't love those two players, I would still play them a significant amount of time, but mostly at their more natural power forward position instead of at center. At PF they won't be at as many size disadvantages as they are at center. If for some reason Plumlee just sucks, then I'd play Hairston and Jefferson at the same time more often, placing more emphasis on rebounding instead of playing so many guards and small forwards at one time.
This would allow Parker to move to his natural small forward position and Hood to shooting guard when he'd have an even bigger advantage than he does at SF. This would also keep the very inconsistent Sulaimon and Thorton off the floor more often. Neither has a consistent shot and I don't think they're that good defensively. So my main players who get full time minutes would still be Parker, Hood and Cook. But I'd give Plumlee at least 20 minutes a game (more depending on how well he plays) and I'd cut down on Sulaimon and Thorton's minutes. I think this would directly improve our rebounding (it can't get much worse) and overall defense and indirectly improve the offense by giving it more opportunities to hopefully not let Parker jack up bad shots.
But if Coach K doesn't do this or figure something else out this team will continue to struggle against both good overall teams and teams that can rebound well. And that will lead to another good but disappointing season for Duke, one which largely wastes the talent of a very good player in Jabari Parker. The weird thing is, Coach K should have already learned this lesson when, during the middle of the season, he started playing the 7 foot Brian Zoubek more. Once Zoubek got more playing time the team immediately began playing well and rode it all the way to the national title. I'm not sure Marshall Plumlee is as good as Zoubek. But we won't know until he actually plays.