There are many things to be thankful for this Thanksgiving. In addition to the usual family time and gargantuan amount of food, there is a wonderful slate of tournament basketball. Duke is playing in the Battle 4 Atlantis, what many think is the most competitive of the bunch.
The Blue Devils begin the tournament against Minnesota and then could play Virginia Commonwealth, No. 19 Memphis, Stanford, No. 13 Missouri, and No. 2 Louisville later on. Needless to say, Duke will need to bring their A-game if they want to make a run at the title.
I wrote earlier this year that the Blue Devil defense will need to improve drastically this season, but the key this weekend will be on the offensive end. It all starts with the flow of the offense. Moving the ball effectively is more important than ever, due to the exponential growth of athletic teams in college basketball (see Kentucky 2011-12).
It’s an area of the game that top teams excel at, but if you don’t remember much ball movement last year, don’t worry—you’re not alone. Duke ranked 202nd in Division I in assists per game (12.4) and 129th in assist to turnover ratio (1.02). Seth Curry, the team’s assist leader, averaged an underwhelming 2.4 assists per game. In the end, the lack of offensive cohesiveness, coupled with arguably the worst defense in the Coach K era, resulted in the embarrassing loss against Lehigh in the NCAA’s round of 64.
So how can the Blue Devils improve? With true point guards Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton bringing the ball down the court, improvements have already been made. Often, Curry or Austin Rivers, both with shoot first mentalities, acted as the quarterback of the offense, resulting in less passing and more isolation. Cook and Thornton act, most of the time, as pass first players. This allows for Curry, Rasheed Sulaimon, and even Ryan Kelly to work off-ball to get open looks. Rest assured, there will be plenty of 3-pointers made this season.
However, the system that works best with this team, as with many Duke teams of the past, is an inside-outside game. This offensive style can be seen in two different ways. The first is the drive-and-kick technique, when a guard dribbles into the lane and dishes out to a wide open shooter on the perimeter. Cook and Sulaimon’s have the skill-set to drive-and-kick, and both have already shown they’re not afraid to take it hard to the basket. If you want a look at Cook’s passing potential, just rewatch the game against Florida Gulf Coast—the sophomore guard recorded a career-high nine assists.
But the style that will likely be used more often involves the big men down low. A guard passes the ball inside to a forward, who then has an option either to shoot or find an open shooter. It’s a method that has already seen success in 2012. The best example of this particular style came in the game against Kentucky. Early in the second half, Mason Plumlee found Cook and Sulaimon open for three on back-to-back possessions. Plumlee and Kelly accounted for four of the eight assists on three-point baskets in the game.
Ball movement will be of paramount importance this season, but if the Blue Devils can properly utilize an inside-outside offensive scheme, Coach K will have more to be thankful for than just turkey.