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How three games made Duke's Mike Krzyzewski rethink his defensive philosophy

When Mike Brey worked at Duke for eight seasons in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he recalled Mike Krzyzewski using “about 10 possessions” of zone defense over that span. They had a 1-2-2 zone defense, known as “12,” which Duke flashed during times of foul trouble or injury problems. “He had a mid-life crisis,” Brey recalled with a laugh at the memory of Krzyzewski installing the zone in practice. “This is the crew that slaps the floor in man-to-man. We were joking at the time, ‘Can we still slap the floor in 12?’ It doesn’t seem right.”

A decade later, Greg Paulus played 139 games over four years at point guard for Duke. They called their zone defense “Orange” because Krzyzewski learned it from his old friend, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim. Back then, it was more of a rumor than a weapon. In Paulus’ junior season in 2007-08, they played zero possessions of zone. His senior year, that number leapt up to 31 possessions, or about 1.3 percent of the Blue Devils’ defensive possessions.

On Friday night in Omaha, No. 2 Duke is expected to play every possession of the game in a 2-3 zone defense in its Sweet 16 matchup with No. 11 Syracuse. Krzyzewski noted this week the defense is no longer known as Orange, as he said they call it “Pink.” The Blue Devils have played nearly 48 percent of their defensive possessions in “pink” this season, exploiting the length and hiding the inexperience of 6-foot-10 freshman Wendell Carter Jr. and 6-foot-11 freshman Marvin Bagley III. “That’s why he’s one of the best to ever do it, he’s adapted over time,” said Paulus, an assistant at Louisville.

How did Krzyzewski go from a defiant man-to-man disciple – he played and coached under Bobby Knight, after all – to a coach who feels comfortable using zone as his primary defense for an NCAA run?

The transformation starts with a horrific loss in 2006, took a pivot in a Madrid gymnasium known as the Magic Box in 2010 and was essentially completed in a blowout home loss in 2015 that snapped a 41-game home win streak.

Mike Krzyzewski shouts instructions during Duke’s win over Rhode Island in the second round. (AP)

Duke’s zone has been effective enough that they’re ranked No. 8 in KenPom’s adjusted efficiency defensive rankings. And the story of K going from 12 to Orange to Pink is indicative of his evolution as a coach.

“It was a smart move, it was really smart,” Boeheim told Yahoo Sports by phone on Wednesday. “I think it’s still hard for any man-to-man coach to commit to it. But there’s probably a lot of teams that would benefit from it.”

From Japan to Spain to Durham, three games illuminate an evolution from mid-life crisis to mainstream defense.

Greece 101, USA 95 – September of 2006, FIBA World Championships in Saitama, Japan

In his 11-year tenure at USA Basketball, Krzyzewski went 75-1 and won three Olympic gold medals. This game is remembered as a transformative one in USA Basketball annals, as it required the USA Basketball braintrust to rethink its roster makeup, preparation and overall philosophy.

The Greek roster didn’t have a single NBA player at the time, but they had sturdy guards who were unbothered by the pressure defense that Krzyzewski prided himself on. The Greeks in that game kept isolating the American guards in pick-and-roll, using that action to carve the defense, penetrate and kick to open shooters. Dwyane Wade told reporters in the postgame: “They ran like one play the whole game.”

And Team USA really only had one defense to utilize, which proved a hole in its preparation. “We hadn’t practiced the zone,” said Boeheim, an assistant coach on the team. “I wish we had practiced the zone a little bit more. I think we may have been able to use it. We really never needed it again. We never really needed a zone again. Hard to zone the European teams, they shoot it too well.”

One of the reasons why Krzyzewkski tabbed his old friend Boeheim as an assistant was for his zone expertise. That started as more of a strategic maneuver to attack opponents’ zones, as opposed to play zone. USA Basketball holds such a distinct athletic mismatch in every game, it would be foolish to play a lot of zone. But after the Greece game, zone became more of an option and part of the conversation. “We talked about it a lot,” Krzyzewski said. “Not only why you use it. How you use it. Drills. A mentality you have to have in using it.”

USA 86, Spain 85 – August of 2010, FIBA World Championships exhibition in Madrid, Spain

The cozy Madrid gym, which doubled as a sauna on a steamy summer night, is known to locals as the Magic Box. And it’s a fitting setting for a crucial decision that many would have thought required voodoo early on in Krzyzewski’s Hall of Fame career.

The hostile environment of the final tune-up ratcheted up the stakes, as USA Basketball assistant Mike Hopkins recalled it as “the biggest friendly in the history of USA Basketball.” Spain’s roster included Ricky Rubio, Marc Gasol and Rudy Fernandez against a young Team USA team that included Kevin Durant, Derrick Rose and Tyson Chandler.

Team USA led comfortably for most of the game, but Spain made a late charge, with point guard Juan Carlos Navarro scoring on a flurry of pick-and-rolls. Boeheim said half-joking after the game that he scored on five possessions on the same play. Clinging to a one-point lead with 16.9 seconds left, Boeheim piped up in the Team USA huddle: “We can’t stop them. Why don’t we go to zone?”

Mike Krzyzewski’s Duke and Jim Boeheim’s Syracuse will duel in the Sweet 16. (Getty)

The shift to the defense Team USA called “Orange” in Boeheim’s honor worked fantastically. (“What else would you call it?” Boeheim joked after the game.) Team USA showed man out of the timeout and then shifted once the ball was inbounded. Chauncey Billups recalled after the game the strategy “made them backpedal” a little bit. Durant ended up blocking a pair of bad looks, a fitting end to a haphazard possession. (Spain couldn’t call timeout after the switch, as international rules don’t allow mid-possession timeouts).

“I didn’t really think he would do it,” Boeheim said of Krzyzewski. “Luckily, they had no clue. They did nothing. It was the only time we used it in the whole 11 years together.” He chuckled on the phone on Wednesday: “I’m glad it worked.”

Miami 90, Duke 74 – ACC league play in January of 2015, Durham, North Carolina

After starting the season 14-0, Duke lost consecutive games to N.C. State and Miami. The loss to the Hurricanes wasn’t as concerning as the tenor of it, as Miami shot 67 percent in the second half.

The win was so emphatic, and ultimately transformative, Miami coach Jim Larranaga still recalled the final score off the top of his head recently. “We beat them 90-74 at their place by putting everyone in ball screens,” he said.

The conversation came after Miami’s loss to UNC in the ACC tournament when Larranaga was asked about Duke’s elite talent level this season. The Blue Devils have by far the best talent in college basketball, and Larranaga pointed back to that 2015 season as a guide of how Krzyzewski has learned to maximize it. Following that home blowout to Miami, Krzyzewski switched to exclusively zone in an upset win at Louisville the next game. Duke mixed in zone the rest of the way and went on to win the national title, mixing in zone against Wisconsin in the title game.

The philosophy switch essentially doubled as a concession that man defense may not be ideal for a Duke team that relied on three one-and-done players – Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. The complexities of guarding pick-and-rolls are tough to master in just a few months on campus. “What they’ve done [this year], is what Coach K did back in 2015,” Larranaga said. “He switched. He found a way they could defend without Okafor being a liability. That’s what they’ve done now.”

Only this time, they’ve done it better. This year’s liability is Marvin Bagley III, a sure-fire top-five pick whose defense could politely be considered apathetic. It’s a fitting coda with Syracuse on the horizon Friday, as Krzyzewski singled out Boeheim and Hopkins for teaching he and his staff the zone nuances.

The switch to primarily playing zone fits with the evolution of modern basketball. Hopkins, who Duke assistant Jon Scheyer has called over the years to pick his brain, points out that the zone is the perfect defense for the analytics movement. In an era with increased reliance on 3-pointers, layups and free throws, all three should (in theory) decline when facing a zone. (Washington’s defense in Hopkins’ first year improved to No. 3 in Pac-12 play – 70.4 points per game from dead last under Lorenzo Romar last year at 81.8.)

Hopkins worked for USA Basketball for nearly eight years with Krzyzewski and noticed that Krzyzewski wanted to keep pressure defense principles in the zone. “It really is the best defense to teach one-and-done guys,” Hopkins said. “[Duke has] length and size and now they have an off-speed pitch. This year it’s become their fastball.”

All it took was three games, over a decade, to get Duke there.

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