Look Back: How Duke sliced up a talented Arkansas defense

To push through to the program’s first Final Four since 2015, Duke basketball put together another marvelous offensive performance vs. an elite defense. The Blue Devils followed the Texas Tech win (1.17 points per possession) with top-shelf execution against Arkansas.

As the historical Final Four matchup with North Carolina rapidly approaches, let’s sort back through Duke’s win over Arkansas: what worked and what didn’t work so well?

Slice Post: Banchero Time

Throughout the 2021-22 season, the Blue Devils have featured Paolo Banchero in dozens of different ways. One of the primary methods to involve the talented freshman with a post touch has come from a simple slice screen action.

Banchero starts the possession on the weak-side wing, while Mark Williams lifts and sets an angled back screen (slice) for his frontcourt partner.

This action allows Banchero to catch the ball in the low or mid-post — with one side of the floor cleared out. From there, Banchero can attack and pick at what the defense throws his way.

If it’s single coverage, well, Banchero can look to power up and get downhill, or he can show his shooting touch with a midrange jumper.

If the double team arrives, which is often the case, then Banchero must make a good decision based off the location of the second defender: Williams at the rim or a weak-side skip pass.

According to CBB Analytics, Banchero has assisted Williams 39 times this season. That’s the third most of any two-person assist combination on Duke’s roster. (Wendell Moore has assisted Mark Williams 41 times this season and on 41 of Banchero’s field goals, too.)

Coach K will add a small wrinkle to this set by altering who sets the slice screen for Banchero. Instead of using Williams or Theo John, Duke will have one of its guards screen for P5.

On this after-timeout (ATO) possession at Clemson, Jeremy Roach sets the initial off-ball screen. Quickly, Banchero slides down to the low box. When Al-Amir Dawes comes to double, Banchero kicks out for an open Roach 3-point attempt.

This time, it’s Wendell Moore’s turn to screen for Banchero, who elects to isolate in the mid-post region. Au’Diese Toney applies pretty good defense, but Banchero manages to draw a shooting foul.

According to KenPom, Banchero has drawn 4.7 fouls per 40 minutes this season.

Now, one of the other subtle additions to this action can be a weak-side pindown for AJ Griffin. With a guard screening for Banchero, the center (Williams or John) are available to screen away for Griffin.

Here: Trevor Keels sets the initial off-ball screen and Banchero rolls to the post. As this happens, note Williams, who lines up to set a down screen for Griffin — over on the wide side of the floor. Nothing comes from that screen on this possession, although the ball will cycle back to Griffin. Banchero receives the post touch; Clemson doesn’t hard double, but Naz Bohannon drifts a little too far off Griffin, who relocates and drills a 3.

Back to the Arkansas game: Moore sets the slice screen. Meanwhile, with five sets of eyes looking at Keels and Banchero, the ball swings back to the middle and Williams sets the pindown for Griffin. Jaylin Williams is in a drop and Griffin catches the ball with a head of steam.

Worried about a possible lob for Mark Williams, Jaylin Williams stays home. Griffin curls and scores.

After the pindown for Griffin, the Duke player with the ball can look back to Banchero. If the post defender fronts Banchero, Duke can look for hi-lo action.

Once again, it benefits Duke’s offense to find way to integrate Banchero and Griffin. The Blue Devils can put those two in the same action or go this route — running both off separate screens, back-to-back.

Wendell Moore: Off-Ball Movement

As I’ve previously mentioned in this space, Wendell Moore is an underrated off-ball mover. Moore gets a lot of credit for his offensive creation, on-ball defense and leadership — all of which deserve attention. However, one of the reasons Jeremy Roach and Paolo Banchero have come on as playmakers is Moore’s willingness to play off the ball.

Moore doesn’t need to run 15-20 pick-and-rolls per game to feel involved, nor does he need to touch the ball on every possession. As Roach takes greater ownership of Duke’s half-court primary creation duties, Moore slides gracefully to a secondary attacker role.

For his career, Moore has hovered right around 20.0 percent in terms of usage rate. At the start of the season, Moore’s usage rate was up, slightly: 24.0 percent.

Over the last five games, though, Moore’s usage rate has dipped under 18.0 percent: 17.8 percent. His assist rate in that short stretch is down to 14.9 percent. These are small changes, but it makes a big difference. He’s shot the hell out of the ball in this role, too: 65 points on 39 field goal attempts and a true shooting rate of 67.7 percent.

Moore’s shooting slashes for this season are excellent: 55.9 2P%, 41.1 3P% and 81 FT%. The junior from Charlotte is an 81.7 percent free throw shooter for his career.

Moore still gets to work as a driver and a pick-and-roll operator; Duke will continue to put the ball in his hands. In fact, here’s that Horns Corner action for Moore, which Duke blitzed Miami with at the ACC Tournament.

However, this shift — while slight — allows Moore to float off the basketball, which in turn helps Duke’s flow in the half court. There’s more movement.

It also frees up Moore to expend a more energy on defense.

I love this activity level from Moore: As Banchero isolates in a late-clock situation, all four Duke players away from the ball remain static, including Moore. When Banchero drives baseline vs. Trey Wade, though, Moore darts in from the opposite wing, in front of Toney, his defender. WMJ looks for the basketball while making this cut. However, with Banchero already is his shooting motion, Moore is now in good offensive rebounding position. When the shot bounces off the rim, Moore gets up quickly to tap it back in.

During his freshman season, Moore was used as a utility player for Duke; he spent time at four different positions, including backup point guard duties (when Tre Jones was injured) and minutes as a small-ball frontcourt option.

Moore posted a 7.4 percent offensive rebound rate in the 2019-20 season, which (of course) included a rather famous put-back finish at the Dean Dome.

In the second half vs. Arkansas: Moore had yet another put-back bucket.

The Blue Devils align in their Horns Elbow 45 pick-and-roll action: Banchero as the ball handler and Williams as the screener. Arkansas doesn’t switch the action, like plenty of other teams have done this season. Instead, Jaylin Williams drops in the paint, while Stanley Umude fights over on Banchero.

Williams doesn’t set a great screen, which makes it tough for Banchero to turn the corner. As Banchero goes to work, Moore shakes up to balance the floor. However, when he see P5 spin middle, Moore cuts towards the paint. Toney denies the pass, but once again: Moore, while on the move, grabs the board and powers up for another two.

Horns Clear: WMJ

As well as Roach played in Greenville and San Francisco, the sophomore point guard experienced some issues with physical point-of-attack defense from JD Notae. As a result, Duke adjusted and ran some offense through Moore.

That may be the No. 1 strength of this team: the Blue Devils have a variety of playmakers — different sizes and strengths — that can serve as the launch pad for offense.

The Blue Devils went back to one of their go-to sets to get Moore downhill: Horns Clear.

In this look, Duke sets up in Horns: Banchero and Williams up top, Griffin and Roach in the corners. Banchero starts the action by simply cutting across the top of the key — to the other side of the lane. There’s no screen here, just the threat of one. Quickly, Moore attacks the space that Banchero vacated. If Moore can turn the corner 1-on-1, another defender must cover ground to help.

The help defender to Moore’s right doesn’t want to depart the strong-side corner; that would leave Roach open for a kick-out 3. Jaylin Williams must slide over from his drop position. As this happens, Mark Williams dives to the hoop. Moore pumps the brakes, the defenders fly by and Williams is open for the drop-off.

Here’s the same look in the second half: Banchero clears and Moore drives right. Toney can’t leave Griffin in the corner and Davonte Davis must foul to prevent a dunk/layup at the rim.

If Griffin is stationed in the strong-side corner, and Moore is able to get downhill, that help defender simply can’t leave the corner. That’s a no-no with just about any player standing in the corner; however, it’s really tempting fate to do it with Griffin (45.8 3P%), a lights-out 3-point bomber.

Moore will make this read every time it’s available.

In general, though, Moore has caved in a plethora of defenses with Horns Clear action this season. It allows him to flex his capabilities as a rugged, downhill driver.

Mark Williams: PnR Defense

As Duke triumphed over Arkansas, Mark Williams (as usual) had a large defensive impact.

Williams, who grabbed nine defensive rebounds, blocked three shots in the win. The 7-foot sophomore now has 22 games this season of 3+ blocks, which is fifth most in Division I. Dating back to last season, Williams has 28 career games of 3+ blocks.

Going back to the 2007-08 season, Williams is one of only four players with 20.0 percent defensive rebound rate, 10.0 percent block rate and 90+ dunks: Anthony Davis (2012), Tacko Fall (2017) and Udoka Azubuike (2020).

Even in a vacuum, these are ridiculous numbers for Williams, who continues to find his groove as a pick-and-roll defender.

When Williams is able to comfortably drop into the lane, he really can close down the paint and put a lid on the rim. Williams has a tendency to over-help and lurch out to contest shots, which can leave the rim open for drop-off passes or offensive rebounds. When he stays solid, though, Williams blots out the sun at the hoop.

Jaylin Williams is super skilled as a passer, but he’s not quite there as a stretch shooter (23.9 3P%). Duke’s Williams can really cover ground, but it makes a big difference when he doesn’t have to attend to a stretch-5.

Williams guards this ball screen closer to the level, but with the Arkansas big man wary to launch from deep, he’s forced to drive. Once again, Williams recovers and closes down the rim.

The reviews for Williams guarding ball screens higher — or even showing against the screen — were a little more mixed, although he was able to make some plays, including this rip on Notae, which led to a grab-and-go transition finish.

Jaylin Williams ends up getting the put-back score on this possession, but before that: Mark Williams displays his ground coverage. The Duke big man shows high vs. old friend Chris Lykes and gets back to the rim to block Toney on the cut attempt.

There were other moments, though, when the more aggressive defensive approach from Williams proved costly. When Williams showed high on ball screens, it opened up the short roll game for Jaylin Williams.

If you put a player like Jaylin Williams in short-roll opportunities, he can make a defense pay with quick 4-on-3 decision-making.

Duke’s defense is also way less intimidating when Williams is 20+ feet from the basket — instead of at the rim.

According to CBB Analytics, opponents have an effective shooting rate of 47.3 percent with Williams on the floor this season. Comparatively, Duke has an effective shooting clip of 57.2 percent when Williams is in the game.

When Williams drops, he shows the ability to play the “middle ground.” Essentially, Williams gets in an athletic stances and guards two spaces on once: contesting a possible floater from the ball handler and guarding against a back-side lob to the dive man.

For the season, only 21.8 percent of opponent field goal attempts have come within four feet of the rim, per CBB Analytics. That’s below the national average: 24.9 percent. Opponents are shooting 62.3 percent on those looks, which is under the national mean: 64.8 percent.

Instead, opponents are pushed into less efficient looks from inside the lane but outside the restricted area. According to CBB Analytics, 29 percent of opponent field goals have come — well above the Division I average of 23.6 percent. Opponents are shooting under 41 percent on this looks, too.

This is a team-wide effort, but Williams is this biggest piece of the puzzle.

Zone Booth: What’s the call?

Duke recently moved to No. 1 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. On the other side of the floor, though, this isn’t an elite defense, which creates some concern for the matchup with UNC, a top-20 offense in the country.

The Blue Devil hover around the 45-50 nationally in terms of defensive efficiency. Duke defended well vs. Arkansas: allowing under 0.99 points per possession. In recent weeks, however, the Blue Devils have allowed the following opponents to score above 1.09 points per possession: seven out of the last 10 games.

    • Syracuse (twice), North Carolina, Miami, Virginia Tech, Michigan State and Texas Tech.

As a postseason curveball in the NCAA Tournament, Duke has started to mix in more zone. It was a big tool for the Blue Devils in the second half vs. Texas Tech.

Two days later, it helped against the Razorbacks as well.

I charted Duke with 12 more possessions of half-court zone defense in the win over Arkansas. This includes three ATO possessions — starting with just before halftime.

Another ATO zone possession included Duke starting in a 2-3 base, then shifting to more of a matchup look, which led to a miss by Arkansas.

The Blue Devils mixing in some more matchup-based principles — as opposed to sticking to a more strict 2-3 concept — is interesting. (I’m storing this aspect away.)

By no means was Duke’s zone impenetrable. Arkansas was able to establish some level of success by screening the top of the zone or going quickly and playing through the corners.

However, the zone served its purpose. Similar to the TTU game, Duke squeezed enough enough juice out of it to through Arkansas out of rhythm on offense.

The question now becomes: will Duke try the zone against North Carolina? If so, will that application be active or reactive? By that, would the Blue Devils try their zone as an off-speed pitch — even if it’s just to short-circuit an ATO play call?

When Duke and UNC met in Durham earlier this season, the Blue Devils tried a little bit of zone. That move was reactive, though: the Tar Heels cooked out of the pick-and-roll. Duke was desperate to try anything and everything to disrupt North Carolina, but it wasn’t happening that game.

North Carolina is a difficult team to zone, too. Hubert Davis has three excellent spot-up shooters in his rotation: Brady Manek, RJ Davis and Caleb Love. Armando Bacot is an elite offensive rebounder, who can also roam the baseline and look for catches in the dunker spot. Leaky Black and Manek can both work as high-post passers at the nail.

With that in mind, it seems more likely that Duke’s zone will remain in Coach K’s back pocket. It worked the last two rounds, but that doesn’t mean it’ll travel south to New Orleans. Although the hi-lo combination of Manek and Bacot start to feast against Duke’s base coverages, then the zone could be deployed. It’s risky, though.

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