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The answer to Williams could have been on Duke’s bench

Posted By Chris Girandola On Mar 25 2011 @ 3:13 pm In Duke | No Comments

Josh Hairston.

Reeves Nelson.

These are two names that could have made a difference in Duke’s defense of Arizona’s do-everything-star Derrick Williams.

Duke lost to Arizona on Thursday night because Blue Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski didn’t know the brilliance of Reeves Nelson and didn’t look down the bench to Josh Hairston.

First, let me take you back to the 2009 AAU summer circuit when Hairston’s star-studded D.C. Assault team (that coincidentally also featured Duke guard Tyler Thornton) ran over much of the competition with Hairston garnering many All-Tournament honors.  Hairston was consistently ranked in the top 25 for the class of 2010.  Meanwhile, on the West Coast, a player by the name of Derrick Williams was an unheralded bench player on Team Odom and not among Rivals.com [1]‘s top 150 recruits in the class of 2009.

Flash forward to today.  After choosing Arizona over Memphis, Marquette, Connecticut, among others, Williams has worked himself into being a potential top-5 pick in the upcoming NBA draft.  He carved up Duke with three-point jumpers, dribble-drives to the basket for dunks, offensive boards, defensive stops and an ability to get his teammates involved in the second half.

The 6-foot-7 Hairston watched it all from the bench, probably pondering how he could have done more than the taller and slower trio of Miles Plumlee, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly.  And he probably paused to think how he could have given productive minutes for a tired and hurting Kyle Singler.

Yes, I’m aware Hairston hasn’t played a boatload of minutes this year, but that’s due to the fact that minutes haven’t been there for him.  But his size, athleticism, toughness and skill set were the perfect defensive assignment for Williams.

Possibly a better way into seeing how this match-up could have worked would be to go back to when Arizona was soundly defeated by UCLA in a 71-49 thumping on Feb. 27 in which Williams was held to 15 points.

Stop me if this sounds familiar:  Williams had torched UCLA the previous month in Tucson, scoring 22 points and delivering several highlight-reel worthy dunks in a Wildcats victory.  And the 6-foot-8 Williams was on pace for another huge game against the Bruins in the rematch at Pauley Pavilion with 13 points on 4-for-7 shooting with 5:22 left in the first half.

That’s when UCLA coach Ben Howland made a key adjustment by putting the 6-foot-8 sophomore forward Reeves Nelson on Williams after the bigger and slower tandem of 6-foot-10 power forward Anthony Stover and 6-foot-10 center Josh Smith had difficulties with Williams on the perimeter.

Williams had only two points on 1-for-4 shooting the rest of the way.

Here’s the deal, I’m not saying that Hairston would have prevented Williams from doing what he did, but having the Plumlees and Kelly on him didn’t work.  And having Kyle Singler on him just forced the Duke star into foul trouble. 

Another way to beating Arizona could have been solved if the Duke coaching staff had looked back to the St. John’s debacle and figured out their intense man-to-man defense doesn’t work against forwards who can play inside and outside.

Actually, and surprisingly, they did figure it out for a minute when Duke uncharacteristically went into a 3-2 match-up zone after Arizona had gone on a 9-2 run, courtesy of Arizona coach Sean Miller’s use of a spread offense.  Williams had carved up Duke’s man-to-man defense in the first half and after his supporting cast began to catch fire in the second half, it was apparent the Wildcats were on the verge of using their athletic ability to zoom past the foul-plagued Blue Devils.

Coach Krzyzewski called a timeout after a layup by Arizona guard Jesse Perry brought the Cats to within one at 48-47, but after a three-pointer from Andre Dawkins, Arizona got to the basket with ease once again, only to have Lamont Jones and Perry miss easy layups.  Coach K apparently recognized how Williams and Solomon Hill were too quick and far too athletic for the Plumlee brothers to handle and he went with a zone that he surely borrowed from his Team USA assistant, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim.

Following two free throws by Irving to put Duke ahead, 53-47, the Blue Devils surprised Arizona with the zone.  Unlike previous trips down the floor in which the Wildcats had scored quickly and rather easily, Arizona found themselves having to adjust, moving the ball around the perimeter until Jones made a double-clutch leaning jumper from 15 feet out on the right side of the floor.

It wasn’t an easy shot to make, but Coach K apparently became skittish with the zone and went back into the man-to-man defense.  Miller recognized this and went to the spread offense, pulling the taller Plumlees away from the basket and giving free reign to Williams and Hill and pretty much everyone else — Brend0n Lavender and Jamelle Horne — to attack the basket.

It would have been nice to see Duke try to offset the momentum with a few more tries at the zone defense.  If anything else from the St. John’s game, the Blue Devils should have known that a spread offense that pulls the Plumlees away from the basket is a bad, bad thing.

By going to a zone, it could have prevented Williams, Hill, Lavender and Horne from getting past the Plumlees, Ryan Kelly and Kyle Singler while also limiting Jones’ ability to shred the man-to-man defense and find wide-open cutters or three-point shooters or just simply score an uncontested layup.

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