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Coach's Corner: BC Basketball and Duke Similar, But Very Different

Similar offensive approach, but different defensive approach as Duke tops Eagles in ACC lidlifter

To help or not to help, that is the question
To help or not to help, that is the question
Gregory J. Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Our basketball analyst "Coach" John Fidler breaks down the Eagles' 81-64 loss to Duke in the ACC opener.

At first it might seem like a ludicrous statement. BC and Duke basketball, similar? The Blue Devils, defending national titlists and perennial ACC and NCAA power and the Eagles, trying to establish a foundation to get back to respectability in a brutally difficult conference.

Of course, BC and Duke are different and we all know that, but there are a few similarities outside of the fact that they both play in shorts and tank tops with a round orange ball to protect and the subtleties between the two told at least part of the story in Saturday's 81-64 Duke win over the Eagles.

The similarities:

Both BC and Duke played small ball Saturday. The Devils started only one true post player, Marshall Plumlee, while the Eagles countered with a combination of Dennis Clifford to start and Idy Diallo off the bench, although they were never on the floor together. Duke played center Chase Allen (6'10") just six minutes as a sub and outside of freshman guard/forward/essentially whatever he wanted to be—Brandon Ingram at 6'9"—played no one taller than 6'5".

BC, on the other hand, countered with no one taller than 6'7"—A.J. Turner and Ervins Meznieks.

Neither post player is what you would consider an offensive threat. Duke never threw the ball into Plumlee while Clifford got minimal post touches but 13 shots. This game was all drive and kick to the three point line and which team did that better and which team defended that better.

The differences:

Beside the obvious talent differential between the two teams, the differences were really more about how the teams defended, as opposed to how they executed offense.

The Eagles played very softly on the wings and relied on help defense from the other wings to get the ball stopped. On the game thread, Newton Bus made an excellent point about the Eagles "over helping"; in other words, dropping those wing defenders as far as they had to, to make sure the Duke guards couldn't get all the way to the basket.

Over helping is very much an NBA concept where offenses can surround the floor with shooters. In this situation, it is imperative that the man defending the dribbler can contain him with limited help, so the other defenders can stay home on the shooters.

In college and high school basketball, this is not something you generally have to worry about. You may face a team with one or maybe two elite shooters who you decide either not to help off at all or you can position that help higher toward the ball to allow the stop the ball earlier.

BC decided to play limited pressure on the ball and provide "stop the ball at all cost" help which generally came in or near the lane. This worked early as the Eagles kept the Devil guards from getting to the rim and sacrificed open three point shots, which Duke couldn't hit.

Duke, though, has made a living for many years on making threes and yesterday was no different as the Devils made five of ten in the second half. As important as making those threes were (the Eagles also shot 50% from three in the second half, making four), it opened up driving lanes and easy shot opportunities, which allowed Duke to shoot 60% overall from the floor in the second half.

Let's take a look at a couple of examples from the videos below.

On the first play, all five Eagles are in the paint and ball pressure is very light.  Duke guard Derryck Thornton drives at Eli Carter, who is already inside the three point arc. Garland Owens has to help very early and very high, and Brandon Ingram drifts by design and spaces out all the way to the corner, where Thornton can hit him with a crisp, direct pass and lead him right into his shot motion. Owens has too far to close out to get to that shot and Ingram has an easy look which he makes.

On the second play, Duke starts off with high ball screen action, forcing Idy Diallo to hedge and Ervins Meznieks to fight over the screen to cover Ingram. The player with the toughest decision to make is AJ Turner, who needs to decide if he helps or stays home on Matt Jones.

There is confusion between Meznieks and Turner. Meznieks switches and Turner stays and that ultimately leaves Ingram open for another uncontested three.

In the last clip, BC shows some half court trap. Once the ball gets out of the first trap, there are two direct, sharp passes out of that trap that lead to another open Ingram three.

In all three scenarios, BC allows Duke to make direct passes where the receiver catches the ball in triple threat position ready to pass, dribble or shoot.

Conversely, the Duke defense extends and plays up in passing lanes and forces Eagle players away from the basket, threatening them to drive or go back door. For the most part, BC does not attack off the dribble and when they do catch the ball, they catch it to the outside shoulder, turned away from the basket. Often we see BC unable to actually enter the ball to a wing player to reverse the ball and instead they dribble it there and push that receiver through. Dribbling is a slower medium to move the ball than passing and the Eagle offense bogs down.

This is a key concept to understand the differences in the two defensive philosophies.

The BC defense playing soft and allowing sharp passes to players with shoulders squared provided more easy shot opportunities that Duke ultimately knocked down. The Duke defense, on the other hand, forced BC to reverse the ball via the dribble or contested wing entry and made Eagle receivers catch the ball facing away from the basket, where they then pressured the ball and made the next pass not as crisp and not as direct, and allowed the Devil defenders to recover and be in better position to contest shots.

Just the little bit of extra time it takes to dribble a ball rather than pass it or to pass it with an arc on it as opposed to on a line, is all a good defensive team needs to recover and re-establish their defense.

It truly is a game of inches or in this case, split seconds.