Duke's evolving 2-3 zone expected to be a 'huge challenge' for Kansas
Omaha, Neb. — The proverbial “Road to the Final Four” hasn’t been kind to Kansas the past two years, particularly the hazard known as the Elite Eight.
In order to move past the regional final stage of the NCAA Tournament, the Jayhawks will first have to navigate through — or shoot over — the active arms of Duke’s half-court zone defense.
“They’re so long,” KU center Udoka Azubuike said of the Blue Devils, and how they discourage passes and effectively defend inside and out. “It’s something new. It’s going to be a huge challenge because of their size.”
The most imposing members of the Blue Devils’ defense are freshman bigs Wendell Carter Jr. (6-foot-10, 259 pounds) and Marvin Bagley III (6-11, 234). Carter said Duke (29-7) evolved from a standard 2-3 zone, once head coach Mike Krzyzewski implemented it as a primary strategy in early February.
At times it more closely resembles a 4-1, with four players surrounding the arc and Carter in the paint, protecting the basket.
“As we started playing great shooting teams, we had to stay high to make sure we recover all parts of the perimeter,” Carter said. “I just go in there and do my best to protect the rim.”
Against the Midwest’s No. 1 seed, Kansas (30-7), Duke likely will play its morphed, arc-protecting zone almost exclusively. KU’s four-guard lineup and 3-point success (40.5% on the year) means the Devils can’t afford to give up many open looks.
Ahead of Sunday’s blue blood matchup at CenturyLink Center, Krzyzewski voiced his concern with KU’s perimeter attack, pointing out Duke’s zone and transition defense will have to be effective.
“They get a lot of 3’s,” the five-time national-title winning coach said. “Bill's teams have always attacked in transition and not necessarily just to throw it into the post or drive. They'll take early 3’s and good ones. So we have to be able to cut down the number of good looks they get in transition and in the half court.”
Because Kansas doesn’t play two big men, Carter could find himself in difficult spots when a KU guard has the ball in the high post and Carter has to defend multiple players, as well as anticipate angles, as his teammates try to collapse down and help him out.
Carter said that’s where his lateral quickness is key. He can fake or step hard toward the high post with the hope of baiting a pass away. If successful, he can just wall-up on the next offensive player that comes his way inside.
Every time the ball makes its way to the high post, Carter tries to anticipate what’s coming next, and the most difficult possibilities tend to be a lob or a shot.
“Yeah, it makes it hard, because I’m not going to be perfect every time,” Carter said of the challenge. “They’re gonna score sometimes, but I’m gonna do all I can to prevent them from scoring.”
15th-year KU coach Bill Self, looking to get the Jayhawks to their third Final Four under his watch, credited Krzyzewski for moving to zone, a strategy that has worked for Syracuse for so long. The Jayhawks, of course, defeated the Orange’s version of the 2-3 zone this past December (and weren’t as successful the very next game, in a loss to Washington and its zone).
“You know, even though we played Syracuse early in the season, we didn't do a good job of attacking it at all. We just made shots, made some hard shots,” Self said.
KU’s coach thinks what makes Duke’s zone so tough to overcome is the wingspans of its defenders, likening that aspect of it to the more successful Baylor zones of the past.
“You can't simulate the length that some of the teams can play with, and primarily the way Duke can play with theirs. And they also have — even though they want their bigs to stay in the game, but they've got multiple bigs they can put in and do some things,” Self said. “And I think that's the thing that makes it the hardest is their activity out front and then their length behind it.”