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


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 leading scorer L.J. Cryer. Proctor wanted to know his tendencies. Where he likes the ball. How he gets his shots.

It was time to rewrite a narrative.

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

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

A few minutes in, Duke coach Jon Scheyer called timeout simply to tell his team to calm down and settle in. It did, playing Houston even the next 11 minutes. Then, disaster struck for Houston. Shead raced around a ball screen and into the paint, jump-stopping before going up for a layup, and his right foot turned inward before it hit the floor, leaving him writhing in pain, a sprained ankle ending his season with 6 minutes, 53 seconds left in the first half and Houston ahead 16-10. The best defensive player in the country, 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 responsibility to make sure that didn’t happen.

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

Two possessions in a row, Cryer got the ball trailing by four with an opportunity to put real game pressure on Duke. On the first possession, he got a step on Proctor and got to within 13 feet when he picked up his dribble, searching for a teammate with the shot clock ticking down. Proctor reached in from behind and took the ball away like big brother. Next time down, he pushed Cryer off his spot and forced him to catch it 30 feet from the basket. Cryer took nine dribbles, sizing up Proctor and then crossed over on his 10th, from his left to right, trying to sneak past Proctor toward the baseline. Proctor had seen that before, relying on his mental note and reaching out his left hand. He swiped the ball away, then dove on the floor and passed it to McCain.

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

Houston would get one final shot to tie it, trying to free Cryer on a baseline out-of-bounds play with 8.9 seconds left. Proctor got screened and called for a switch and ended up on Emanuel Sharp, who got lobbed the ball. He used four dribbles to try to free himself of Proctor, but the sophomore Aussie stayed close, sticking his two hands inches from the ball as it left Sharp’s hands. It clanked off the rim, giving Duke the win that had few style points but is as satisfying as any.

“I came back for a reason,” Proctor said. “And it wasn’t just to play in this game tonight. It was to get to a Final Four. Have an opportunity to win a national championship.”

Young teams rarely achieve that, which is why it struck a nerve with Scheyer when his group’s toughness got questioned in the last year.

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

Duke is hardly old, but Scheyer has what’s close to the perfect blue-blood roster makeup this time around, with five-stars Proctor, Kyle Filipowski and Mark Mitchell all returning for their sophomore seasons last offseason to go along with senior guard Jeremy Roach. Duke has one likely one-and-done freshman in McCain, which is fine so long as there’s experience around a player like that. It’s also beneficial if that freshman is not the go-to guy, and typically, McCain is not.

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

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

About halfway through his freshman season, Proctor started drawing the best perimeter scorer because the coaches saw him as the team’s best defender. The numbers backed it up too; Duke’s in-house analytics team had Proctor in the 95th percentile of on-ball defenders in the country.

This season, Proctor started slow again, this time because of an ankle injury. He said he found himself worried about the wrong things. So he just got back to what he was focused on at the end of last season: “guarding and just taking pride in it.”

Houston made it a point to go at 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 at the end of the first half. And Cryer got off only three 3-pointers against Duke — none with Proctor on him — and that was part of the game plan.

“Our point of emphasis was make these guys take tough contested 2s,” said Zach Marcus, Duke’s director of scouting and analytics. “If you lose by guys banging in tough 2s over a contest, you tip your hat.”

Houston attempted only eight 3s total, with Duke choosing to single cover Houston power forward J’Wan Roberts. The Cougars tried to get Roberts in isolation, setting step-up screens to get him advantageous switches. Whether he got a switch or not, Duke mostly single-covered Roberts and stuck to shooters. Roberts scored six points early, but he picked up his second foul with 8:25 left trying to back down McCain, who dropped to the floor as soon as Roberts put his left shoulder into McCain’s chest.

Houston scored only eight points the rest of the half, struggling to get quality looks with both Roberts and eventually 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 resembled a tight pickup game where you just want to get the ball to your best players and pray they can make a shot. Duke’s stars made enough. Both Filipowski (16 points on 14 shots) and Roach (14 points on 14 shots) were inefficient, but they made enough, with Roach hitting what ended up being the dagger, a pull-up over Roberts in the lane with just over a minute left that stretched the lead to six.

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

“Our defense doesn’t get talked about 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’ve been doing it the whole year, but no one’s really said anything on it.”

Well, we can say it 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 that sweet spot of top 20 in both, which is where most national champions finish.

It doesn’t feel like Duke should be considered one of the favorites now, but the talent is there. The Blue Devils opened this season No. 2, and there are few teams that can match the number of future pros in their lineup.

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

Duke might not have lived up to the lofty expectations in the regular season, but storybook seasons in college basketball are written in late March and April. Duke is trying to rewrite the narrative, and get people talking about that defense.

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

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