For all of the talent on Duke’s roster, there was no guarantee they would make the Final Four. After going 12-0 in non-conference play, Duke opened the ACC season with a 2-2 record, including a 12-point loss at NC State and a 16-point drubbing in Cameron at the hands of a Miami team that went on to the NIT. It looked like a carbon copy of the season before, when an offensively-minded group led by a freshman from Chicago (Jabari Parker instead of Jahlil Okafor) struggled on defense before being upset in the first round by Mercer. The difference this time around was that Mike Krzyzewski made a proactive line-up switch, inserting Matt Jones into the starting line-up for Amile Jefferson and going 4-out around Okafor.
The move replaced a 6’9 power forward who couldn’t shoot 3’s or guard smaller perimeter players (Jefferson) with a 6’5 3-and-D wing (Jones). All of a sudden, Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones were playing in a lot more space on offense. Just as important, it moved Winslow from a position as a big SF to a small PF, allowing him to take advantage of his edge in speed against bigger and slower frontcourt players, none of whom could punish Winslow for his lack of size on the other end of the floor. You can imagine the move as an NCAA version of Steve Kerr taking David Lee out of the starting line-up for Draymond Green.
We saw the full benefits of the move in the Elite Eight. Duke was able to outlast Gonzaga 66-52 despite a subpar performance from Okafor, who was held to only 10 points by the Zags' massive frontline. Coach K’s team won thanks to their defense, most notably a strong performance from Winslow, who was matched up with Kyle Wilter, a 6’10 stretch 4. At 6’7 230 with a 6’10 wingspan, Winslow was a rock in the low post, pushing Wiltjer away from the basket and never allowing him to get comfortable. A Duke team that struggled with defense has become a lock-down outfit. They can slide Winslow and Matt Jones to almost any combination of players from the 1-4 positions, removing a lot of the defensive pressure on Okafor, Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook.
The move has also done wonders for Winslow’s draft stock, as he has gone from a late lottery pick to a guy who could be taken in the Top 5. His numbers have risen dramatically over the last two months, in large part because Coach K put him in a position to succeed on both sides of the floor. One guy who has slipped in comparison is Arizona freshman Stanley Johnson and it’s instructive to see the difference in how they were deployed by their respective coaches.
Johnson never got the opportunity to play 1-on-1 too much at Arizona. Sean Miller’s team did a terrible job of spreading the floor all season and it came back to haunt them in the Elite Eight. They lost 85-78 to Wisconsin in a game where they were outscored +30 at the three-point line. While Bo Ryan’s team played four and five three-point shooters for most of the game, Arizona often fielded lineups where Johnson was the only shooter on the floor.
Kaleb Tarczewski, their starting C, is still a fairly raw big man and he can’t space the floor outside of 10+ feet.
Brandon Ashley was supposed to be an ersatz stretch 4, but he ended up taking less than one per game over the course of his junior season. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson is a notoriously bad three-point shooter who can be left open outside of the paint. TJ McConnell, their starting PG, was their second best three-point shooter after Johnson at 32%.
Rather than playing as a small-ball 4 next to three three-point shooters like Winslow, Johnson played as a big SF next to four guys whom defenses could leave open. It was no wonder that he struggled to finish around the basket - there were always multiple defenders coming at him everytime he drove. Johnson was their best three-point shooter, but as an NCAA coach, you don’t want your 6’7 240 future lottery pick spending most of his time 25+ feet from the basket. That should be the job of your role players, the guys who should be making the lives of your star players easier.
It’s not that Arizona didn’t have three-point shooters on their roster, but they came off the bench because they didn’t have the size and athleticism of the McDonald’s All-Americans in front of them. There was no one on their roster like Matt Jones, a 6’5 athlete who can stretch the floor and defend multiple positions. Jones had 16 points on 10 shots against Gonzaga - it was the kind of shooting performance Arizona needed from one of their wings to make it to Indianapolis.
As soon as it became obvious that neither Ashley nor Tarczewski could defend Frank Kaminsky, Arizona’s only play of attack was to go small with either Johnson or RHJ at the 4, putting more speed on Kaminsky and creating space in the line-up to add three-point shooting. It was probably a move Miller should have made in January and February, even if it had come at the expense of a few regular season wins and keeping Ashley happy.
That’s why Coach K runs a dictatorship in Cameron, not a democracy. If Amile Jefferson felt bad about coming out of the line-up, one person that didn’t care at all was his head coach. Coach K’s job is to win basketball games not maximize the draft stock of his players. What’s funny is that the latter is generally a prerequisite for the former. No one gets much love from the scouts when their team underperforms expectations. Ashley has fallen out of the DraftExpress mocks and he currently sits at #99 on their list of the Top 100 NBA prospects.
For Sean Miller, the experience should be a valuable lesson. At the age of 46, he has become one of the elite young coaches in the country, returning Arizona to its place as one of the blue blood programs in college basketball. The only thing missing from his resume is a Final Four appearance. He had more than enough talent on this year’s team to make it there and win the whole thing, but he wasn’t able to find quite the right mix of players to have on the floor at the same time.
Miller’s loss to Wisconsin was similar to John Calipari’s loss in the Elite Eight in 2010, when a team with DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe was knocked off by a West Virginia team that didn’t feature a single player who stuck at the next level. What happened? Bobby Huggins sat in a 1-3-1 zone and dared Calipari’s team to beat it over the top. Ever since then, Calipari has made it a priority to recruit 3-and-D shooters, knowing that he would need three-point shooting to bust open the zones his teams would see in the NCAA Tournament.
Guys like Calipari, Coach K, Tom Izzo and Rick Pitino do most of their best coaching before the NCAA Tournament starts. Wins in March come in January and February, when a coach experiments with different lineups and rotations, and the summer before, when they round out their roster through recruiting, transfers and player development. A great NCAA coach is equal parts coach and GM. They have to build their program year round to be ready for March.