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Can the Blue Devils make an ACC Tournament run? Mark Williams, Duke get ready for Louisville, Carlik Jones

It’s only the second day of the 2021 ACC Tournament, but Wednesday’s Louisville/Duke matchup is ripe with intrigue. The Blue Devils stare down the seemingly impossible task trying to win five games in five days, while clinging to some hope for a miraculous At Large bid if they’re to fall short.

Of course, Louisville can certainly use the ACC Tournament as an opportunity to bolster its own resume. Chris Mack’s club is on the right side of the bubble, but any additional padding could help.

This neutral-court matchup will also be the third time that Duke and Louisville have played one another this season. Each of the first two games came down to the wire, including an overtime masterpiece penned by Carlik Jones less than two weeks ago.

Adding to the juiciness of this event: both KenPom and Bart Torvik project a close game. Duke’s a slight favorite, though, according to their models.

To set things up, a look at how Duke advanced to Round 2 with a blowout win over Boston College, including another strong performance from Mark Williams.

Plus: Matthew Hurt using Floppy action to create scoring opportunities, the high-low connection between Hurt and Williams, minutes for Henry Coleman, and how Duke may look to defend Jones in the pick-and-roll.

 

Mark Williams: Vertical Spacing + Post Game

One of the inflection points of Duke’s season came back in late January — when Mark Williams took on a much larger and impactful role. Williams has been a key cog in Duke’s scheme for six weeks now; however, over the last five games, Williams has averaged 15.4 points, 2.8 offensive rebounds 2.0 blocks and 1.6 steals per game.

During that stretch, Williams has shot 77.8 percent from the field; this includes four more dunks against the Eagles. In total, Williams went for 13 points (6-of-7 FGA), 2 steals and a block as Duke thumped Boston College 86-51.

While his size and reach are obvious factors, Williams moves well, too, which shows up in his pick-and-roll coverages (also improving) and lob finishing. He’s turned into quite the target for Duke’s offense. The Blue Devils can utilize Williams to create much-needed vertical spacing in their half-court offense.

Williams is now shooting 75 percent at the rim this season (81.8 FG% on cuts) — with 32 dunks to his name as well.

Duke prefers to feature Williams in more than one way, though. Part of that process means more designed post touches for Williams.

According to Synergy Sports, Williams is shooting 56.3 percent on post attempts this season — good for firth in the ACC (30+ possessions). Williams certainly reaps the benefits of playing next to Matthew Hurt, a floor-spacer who carries a great deal half-court gravity.

When Duke and Louisville met up two weeks ago, Williams scored on a post-up vs. single coverage. This bucket originated from some initial 1-4 high slice/cross post action.

 

Henry Coleman: Making a difference

It was really nice to see Henry Coleman play 15 minutes in the win over Boston College. That’s a career-high in terms of minutes for Coleman. While on the floor in Greensboro, the 6-foot-7, 230-pound PF/C blocked two shots, recorded a steal and grabbed two offensive rebounds. This dude makes winning plays.

I’ll continue to stump for Coleman — one of the strongest players in the ACC. He’s a quality team defender that gets blocks and steals. At some point, possibly next season, there should be a larger role for him. (Although Duke is set to have several talented frontcourt pieces next season as well.)

Amidst Duke’s crowded frontcourt this year, however, Coleman has played 10+ minutes in only two games. (Williams coming on has eaten into some possible Coleman minutes. Fortunately, though, the vibes seem to be really good with this bunch, which includes Jaemyn Brakefield as well.) In both of those games — Boston College and the home loss vs. UNC — Coleman has been rock solid.

 

lo-hi music

During Duke’s overtime loss to Louisville back on Feb. 27, the Blue Devils ran a lot of action for Hurt. Louisville tasked several different players with the responsibility of shadowing Hurt: Samuell Williamson, Jae’Lyn Withers and Dre Davis.

All three of those guys are quality defenders who don’t mind a grinding defensive assignment. Duke, however, rolled Hurt into enough of his money areas for a big outing: 37 points (13-of-15 2PA).

This high-low action between Williams and Hurt comes out of Duke’s 1-4 high continuity ball screen (CBS) offense; as Hurt sets the empty-side screen for DJ Steward and roll down into the paint, Williams lifts to the top of the key. Williams could turn to his right and launch into another empty-side ball screen with Jeremy Roach. Instead, though, Hurt seals a recovering Williamson, and Williams feeds over the top for two.

Duke activated these types of looks through some of the program’s go-to ball screen sets, including CBS and Horns.

Here’s the same 1-4 slice/cross screen action Duke used to create that post-up score for Williams. This time, however, Hurt comes off the screen from Williams and seals Withers.

 

Flip Floppy

Duke has run what’s called Floppy action for decades. Floppy is an old school “single/double” setup, which is designed to get a team’s top movement shooter open for a jumper or some form of secondary creation.

With the ball up high, the other four offensive players sink to the bottom third of the court. The shooter stands underneath the basket; two players set up for screens on one side of the floor, while another potential screener lines up at the opposite block. The shooter has the option: go off the double screens or the single.

 

As Cassius Stanley comes off the screen, Kameron McGusty decides to cheat over the top, which opens up the baseline. Stanley drives and Rodney Miller must help, which creates space for Vernon Carey Jr.

From the season prior, at UNC: Nassir Little tries to go over the top on Cam Reddish. However, Reddish counters by fading to the corner for a 3-pointer.

During Duke’s NCAA Tournament opener in 2019: RJ Barrett and Reddish are the two interior shooters. Barrett comes off screens from Reddish and Marques Bolden, which (again) his man tries to cheat. The result is Barrett going baseline for a power spike.

 

Matthew Hurt: Floppy

Duke likes to use Floppy to set up high-low action, too. Here’s a look at that from the Bellarmine game this season: Wendell Moore Jr. comes off the double, Jordan Goldwire exits off the single from Hurt, who uses his own down screen to carve out room in the post. In textbook high-low fashion, Williams lifts to the elbow for an entry pass and quickly relays the ball to Hurt.

If opponents scout this and sink into the paint to take away the over-the-top feed, Williams has shown a little shooting touch out to 15-18 feet.

While Hurt is an excellent post scorer, he’s also pretty damn good shooting on the move and from deep. Outside of spot-up looks and pick-and-pops, the Blue Devils have crafted 3-point looks for Hurt with Floppy as well.

Hurt starts off as the single-side screener, but ultimately, he’s the primary target of this version of floppy After he screens, Hurt doesn’t post his man. Instead, he rockets off a screen from the other big man on the opposite block.

According to Synergy, Hurt — with that high release — has scored 1.29 points per off-screen possession (69 eFG%) this season.

During the ACC Tournament matchup with Boston College, Duke utilized this concept again, though Hurt missed the 3-point attempt.

It’s also something that Duke used for Hurt during the matchup with Louisville in Durham. Instead of cheating over the screen, though, Williamson (strong defensively in this game) trails Hurt. This takes away the catch-and-shoot opportunity. Although with Williamson in his hip pocket, Hurt is able to create his own shot — with Williams occupying Withers.

 

How will Duke defend Carlik Jones in ball screens?

Over the course of two matchups this season, Duke has tried a variety of ways to defend Carlik Jones, the ACC’s top pick-and-roll maestro. For the most part, though, nothing has worked; Jones has feasted on the Blue Devils.

He’s good at basketball.

Jones combined to score 49 minutes in the two Duke games this season; he’s done most of his damage in those 84 minutes in the paint or at the line (17-of-20 FTA).

Duke has mixed defensive coverages vs. Jones this season. During the first game, Duke actually played zone for the majority; however, with about 15 minutes to play, Duke switched to man defense.

Going by the numbers, the zone hasn’t worked well against Louisville this season. The Cards have scored 1.2 points per possession vs. Duke’s zone, according to Synergy. (0.85 PPP vs. man defense)

While in man-to-man, the Blue Devils tried to Ice ball screens with Jones — an effort to keep the electric guard on one side of the floor. No middle allowed.

The big man defender drops, while the on-ball defender tries to push Jones toward the sideline. Withers sets a fairly high screen here, which allows Jones to gather some steam before getting to the second-level/drop defender. Jones crosses over and tunnels to the rim for a finish over Jalen Johnson.

(For the most part, Johnson had real issues as a drop defender this season.)

Once again, Goldwire sets up his screen-roll defense to not afford Jones the middle of the floor, though he’s unable to get between Jones and JJ Traynor’s screen. Hurt isn’t in a great position on his drop, either. But Jones still has to hit a pretty tough pull-up 2.

 

When Duke’s guarded Jones pick-and-roll with a seemingly more flat (high) drop look, Jones turned those situations into compressed 1-on-1 mismatches; he’ll weaponize his nasty crossover or snake back across and get downhill. He’s a master manipulator in the screen-roll.

Louisville can stress these coverages by using some wedge/screen-the-screener action, too.

When the opportunity presents itself, Jones is quick to spray out wide to shooters.

If Hurt or Williams are involved in the pick-and-roll defense, then some type of drop or Ice coverage is a likely call against Jones. However, if Duke has a smaller, more flexible lineup in the game, the Blue Devils can try to switch these screens.

Watch Jones work late in the game in Durham. Duke has a switchy lineup on the floor; Hurt is the 5 and Wendell Moore Jr. is the de facto 4-man. Louisville wants to bring Hurt into the ball screen action vs. Jones as an attack opportunity. Moore sees this and communicates to Hurt a switch behind the play — kicking Hurt out to the corner on Williamson, while he steps in to guard Withers and then switch on Jones.

This is a really nice defensive play from Moore, but good offense will usually beat good defense.

If Louisville gets the sense that an opponent wants to switch pick-and-roll action, then they can utilize guard-guard ghost screen/blur action with Jones and David Johnson. Instead of actually setting a ball screen for Jones, Johnson will slip out.

 

If Johnson has some advantage because of a defensive miscommunication, Jones can pitch it over to him. And if Jones likes his switch matchup, he can just go to work one-on-one.

Battle Lines

Looking ahead, Duke could try to be more aggressive against Jones — sending extra attention his way on ball screens. It would be a bold adjustment for Duke to try and trap or blitz Jones, especially with Louisville’s secondary firepower. That said, it could be worth the risk.

The Cards aren’t a great shooting team (31.1 3P%), but those percentages go up if the looks are wide open. Even more concerning: Johnson lurks as a game-breaking secondary creator if you let rim stroll into 4-on-3 situations on the back side of a trap or a hard show.

(Perhaps it goes without saying, but Johnson’s court vision is just wonderful.)

Louisville got a lot of good offense this season off spread pick-and-roll for Jones — followed by this roll-replace action from Johnson, who lifts up from the dunker spot to above the 3-point arc.

Additionally, when teams have thrown a more aggressive “show” at Jones, he’s remained patient and attacked as soon as the added pressure cooled off.

Plus: Withers has shown he’s capable of making plays on the short roll when opponents double Jones.

 

Buckeye Back

When these two teams last met, Louisville used one of its primary half-court sets for a connection between Jones and Johnson.

Running Buckeye action following a timeout, Jone hit Johnson on the first read of the play’s design — Johnson coming off a back screen from Traynor. Steward and Williams weren’t ready for it; neither was Georgia Tech when Jones found Johnson for an identical finish back on Feb. 1.

During the regular season final against Virginia, Jones and Johnson hooked up on this action yet again.

 

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