Duke’s defense squeezes Houston in Sweet 16 as Blue Devils start to rewrite the narrative

DALLAS — Tyrese Proctor asked Duke’s analytics team this week for more video of Houston’s leading scorer, LJ Cryer. Proctor wanted to know his tendencies. Where he likes the ball. How he gets his vaccines.

It was time to rewrite a story.

That second-round loss to Tennessee last year, the one that made Duke too soft to hang with a physical, defensive college basketball team, sat in Duke’s stomach like a late-season burrito. evening. The Blue Devils were constantly reminded of this. It takes “grit and fight” to beat teams like that, Proctor would say, and the same would be true in Friday night’s 54-51 Sweet 16 victory over top-seeded Houston.

The Cougars have been the best defensive team in college basketball for most of the season. Led by senior point guard Jamal Shead, the Coogs make it seem like the walls are closing in on the court. And Duke felt it in the opening minutes, turning the ball over four times before the first media timeout.

A few minutes later, Duke coach Jon Scheyer called a timeout simply to tell his team to calm down and settle down. That’s what happened, playing Houston even the next 11 minutes. Then disaster struck Houston. Shead ran around a ball screen and into the paint, stopping before going up for a layup, and his right foot turned inside before hitting the floor, leaving him twisting pain, a sprained ankle ending his season with 6 minutes, 53. There are a few seconds left in the first half and Houston leads 16-10. The best defensive player in the country, the best leader, an All-American, sidelined.

It would be up to Cryer to keep Houston’s season alive, and the best defensive guard left in the game made it his duty to make sure that didn’t happen.

Cryer got rolling in the first half, picking off Duke freshman Jared McCain, but when Houston needed him to get through the final stretch, it was Proctor who had the assignment.

Two possessions in a row, Cryer trailed the ball by four with the opportunity to put some real game pressure on Duke. On the first possession, he took a step on Proctor and got within 13 feet when he resumed his dribble, looking for a teammate with the shot clock running. Proctor reached from behind and took the ball away like his big brother. The next time, he pushed Cryer out of his spot and forced him to catch it 30 feet from the basket. Cryer completed nine dribbles, assessing Proctor, then crossed on his 10th, left to right, trying to pass Proctor toward the baseline. Proctor had seen it before, relying on his mental note and holding out his left hand. He swiped the ball, then dove on the floor and passed it to McCain.

“I think I just wanted more,” Proctor said. “It’s only 50-50 balls at the end of the day. And I was the first one on the field on the 50-50 ball.

Houston would get one last shot to tie it, trying to release Cryer on an out-of-bounds baseline play with 8.9 seconds left. Proctor was screened and called for a change and ended up on Emanuel Sharp, who received the ball. He used four dribbles to try to break free of Proctor, but the second-year Australian stayed close, sticking both hands inches from the ball as it left Sharp’s hands. He slammed off the rim, giving Duke the victory that had few style points but was as satisfying as any.

“I came back for a reason,” Proctor said. “And it wasn’t just about playing this game tonight. It was to reach a Final Four. Have the opportunity to win a national championship.

Young teams rarely achieve this, which is why it hit home for Scheyer when the strength of his group was called into question last year.

“You don’t have to apologize for losing in the tournament,” Scheyer said, interjecting when his players were asked one of those tough questions, then pointing out that he started four freshmen he a year ago. “Some of the criticism about toughness or whatever, try being at Duke as a freshman or sophomore and fighting in the tournament, and then talk to me about being tough. And so for me, these guys showed every step of the way how tough they are mentally and physically.

Duke is hardly old, but Scheyer has what’s close to the perfect blue blood roster this time around, with five-star Proctor, Kyle Filipowski and Mark Mitchell all returning for their sophomore seasons last offseason for accompany senior guard Jeremy Roach. Duke probably has a freshman in McCain, which is good as long as there’s experience around a player like that. It’s also beneficial if that freshman isn’t the go-to man, and McCain usually isn’t.

Proctor was the first to decide to return to school last spring, and his growth, ups and downs are what the college experience should be. He struggled offensively early last season, but he surprised the Duke coaches and himself with his defense.

“I wasn’t a defender at all before I came to Duke,” said Proctor, who reclassified in the summer of 2022 to come to Duke early.

About halfway through his freshman season, Proctor began calling the perimeter scorer because coaches considered him the team’s best defender. The figures also confirmed this; Duke’s internal analytics team placed Proctor in the 95th percentile of on-ball defenders in the country.

This season, Proctor got off to a slow start again, this time due to an ankle injury. He said he was worried about bad things. So he went back to what he was focused on at the end of last season: “keeping it and being proud of it.”

Houston made it a point to attack others, obviously respecting Proctor’s defensive abilities. Cryer scored 15 points on 14 shots, but only two of those attempts came with Proctor guarding him. He made one, a contested buzzer-beating runner off the glass late in the first half. And Cryer only made three 3-pointers against Duke — none with Proctor on him — and that was part of the game plan.

“Our goal was to get these guys to win tough 2s,” said Zach Marcus, Duke’s director of scouting and analytics. “If you lose to guys who hit tough 2s in a contest, you tip your hat.”

Houston only attempted eight 3s in total, with Duke opting to single cover Houston power forward J’Wan Roberts. The Cougars attempted to isolate Roberts, setting up heavy screens to get him advantageous switches. Whether he got a change or not, Duke mostly covered Roberts and stuck to shooters. Roberts scored six points early, but he picked up his second foul with 8:25 remaining while trying to back McCain, who fell to the ground as soon as Roberts put his left shoulder into McCain’s chest.

Houston scored just eight points the rest of the half, struggling to get quality looks with Roberts and ultimately Shead out of the lineup.

Roberts, who finished with 13 points, and Cryer made enough shots to stay close in the second half, but the game basically felt like a tight pickup game where you just want to get the ball to your best players and pray that they can shoot. Duke’s stars have done enough. Filipowski (16 points on 14 shots) and Roach (14 points on 14 shots) were ineffective, but they did enough, with Roach hitting what ended up being the dagger, a pull-up jumper on Roberts in the lane with a little more than a minute. left which increased the lead to six.

In the end, it was Duke’s defense that won the game, making six stops on Houston’s final seven possessions.

“We don’t talk about our defense enough,” Proctor said. “I think we have one of the best defenses in the country. I mean, I hope it’s finally proven now. We did it all year, but no one really said anything about it.

Well, we can say that now, and the numbers back it up too. Duke is 13th in adjusted defensive efficiency, and with an offense that ranks seventh, the Devils are in the top 20 in both, where most national champions finish.

It doesn’t seem like Duke should be considered one of the favorites anymore, but the talent is there. The Blue Devils opened this season No. 2, and few teams can match the number of future pros on their roster.

A third meeting this season with NC State awaits you in the Elite Eight. The teams split, with the Wolfpack winning the last of the ACC semifinals. Get past that one, and Duke could potentially face the two teams that spent most of the year ranked in the top three in Purdue and UConn. That third team was Houston, who continues to arrive at the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament and come away with thoughts of “what could have been” because of injuries.

Duke may not have lived up to the high expectations of the regular season, but college basketball’s storybook seasons are written in late March and April. Duke is trying to rewrite the narrative and get people talking about this defense.

(Photo of Houston guard Emanuel Sharp (21) and Duke guard Tyrese Proctor (5): Tim Heitman / USA Today)

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