INDIANAPOLIS — “Duke only shoots 3s.”
“Duke HAS to hit 3-pointers to win.”
How many times have these statements been uttered since Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski took over?
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Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo may not react so kindly after you tell him that after the Blue Devils drubbed the Spartans 81-61.
See, Duke only hit two 3s, finishing just 2-for-10 from behind the arc. Both came in the first half as the Blue Devils built a 36-25 lead at the half.
With Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow pounding the ball inside, this isn’t one of those other Coach K teams. Ya know, the ones with J.J. Redick and Jon Scheyer.
“I think they came into the game taking away our threes,” Krzyzewski said. “They did a good job of it, but it opened up some driving lanes. Once we started driving, you know, we put them in some foul trouble because we were trying to drive every time. We didn’t come into the game thinking we would drive that much. But we came into the game thinking we could drive. It just worked out that way.”
Duke came in 64th in the nation with 7.5 3-pointers made per game and hit 39 percent of them — good for 25th in Division I.
In the past, even earlier this season, shooting under 30-percent from 3-point range was a recipe for a loss. The loss to NC State saw the Blue Devils at 25.9. The rare home loss two games later against Miami (Fla.), just 6-for-21.
But the 3-for-17 vs. Notre Dame in ACC semifinals cost the Blue Devils a chance at playing for an ACC championship.
Saturday night, it didn’t matter that they only hit two. The 81 points the Blue Devils scored were the most in a national semifinal game since North Carolina put up 83 against Villanova in 2009.
No one could’ve predicted that. It was the fewest in a game this season and its fewest in an NCAA tournament game since March 19, 2000, when the Blue Devils also won.
Not even Izzo saw this playing out this way. Especially when it was his plan to take away the three from the Blue Devils. That’s the recipe to beat Duke on any normal night. The problem for Michigan State was Okafor. He poured in 18 points and went 7-of-11 from the field.
“You can blame me for Okafor, because personally, that’s exactly what we wanted to do,” Izzo said. “If we could hold him to under 20 points, take away their threes, we did exactly what we wanted to do to be honest with you.”
And Izzo had good reason to think it would work. When the two teams met back in November — right here in Indianapolis — Duke shot 50 percent from three en route to scoring the same 81 points as Saturday night in a 10 point win.
Even when Michigan State came storming out to a 14-6 lead less than four minutes into the game, Duke didn’t buckle and start chucking from long range. Even though Denzel Valentine hit his first three from behind the arc on the other end of the floor.
In fact, it was the complete opposite.
“We drove the ball with such strength,” Krzyzewski said. “I actually think our offense gave our defense a push in how hard we were taking it to the basket.”
And taking it to the basket they did. Time and time again, finishing with 42 points in the paint and an impressive 1.2 points per possession. Which, when you only make two threes in a game? That’s otherworldly.
“Coach always stresses great defense lead to great offense,” Duke’s Quinn Cook said. “It’s a habit that we’ve developed, which guys are liking. It’s been paying off for us.”
Having the most versatile Duke team in some time might keep the Wisconsin coaching staff up at night before Monday evening’s national championship game.
Take away the three from the Blue Devils and … you lose.