Defense is early focus for Duke basketball, freshmen Dariq Whitehead, Dereck Lively say

Ethan Hyman/
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Like most of their Duke basketball teammates, Dereck Lively and Dariq Whitehead are new to campus as well as being new to college basketball.

Yet the prized freshmen quickly learned the bedrock of Blue Devils basketball has to be strong defense.

“I mean that’s, honestly, the main thing in winning the national championship,” Whitehead, a 6-foot-6 forward, said following one of Duke’s summer practices.

Despite winning the ACC regular season and reaching the Final Four last season, Duke fell just short of its ultimate goal of winning the NCAA tournament. The Blue Devils led the nation in Ken Pomeroy’s offensive efficiency rating at 121.1 points per 100 possessions.

But Duke’s defense finished No. 49 nationally allowing 95.9 points per 100 possessions.

In more traditional terms, the Blue Devils allowed 67.8 points per game, which was No. 130 among all Division I teams nationally.

That’s better than most but not elite, which is what Duke strives to reach.

“I feel like the main thing we know is we’ve got to defend,” Whitehead said. “We’ve talked about making sure you’re not the man that’s left out of the argument about who’s the best defender on the team. We want to make sure we all hold each other accountable. Making sure we all defend. I feel like if we all do that, the offense will take care of itself.”

Whitehead and the 7-1 Lively are two of seven freshmen on this year’s Duke team, the first with Jon Scheyer as head coach following Mike Krzyzewski’s retirement.

Junior guard Jeremy Roach is the lone player back who started a game for Duke last season. Reserve guard Jaylen Blakes, a sophomore, also returns along with two walk-ons in Spencer Hubbard and Stanley Borden.

Other than that, none of the Blue Devils played at Duke last season.

After arriving on campus together in late June to attend summer-school classes and take part in summer practices, the group of newcomers focused on needed bonding time.

That togetherness, they hope, will lead to the strong defense they know they need to not only return to the Final Four, but win the national championship.

“We had the ability to communicate with each other before we got here,” Lively said. “So we had a little bit of a bond. As soon as we got here? Brothers. We’re just able to just go to each other if you need anything. Even from the upperclassmen that we look up to. Off the court, they’re amazing. But on the court, we make sure that we’re not doing the wrong things, we’re not slowing down, we’re not taking a play off.”

The Blue Devils only lost three games over their final 16 last season while going 32-7. But they gave up 81 points or more in all three of those losses — 94-81 to North Carolina in the regular-season finale, 82-67 to Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament final and 81-77 to UNC in the Final Four semifinals at New Orleans.

In each of those losses, the opposition scored at a much greater points per possession (PPP) rate than Duke’s average of .959. UNC’s PPP was 1.25 for its regular-season win and 1.17 in the Final Four game. Virginia Tech produced 1.24 points per possession to win the ACC title game.

That all happened even though Duke had a 7-foot center, Mark Williams, who averaged a league-high 2.82 blocked shots per game and was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year.

Again, the Blue Devils defense was far from poor last season. But it wasn’t as good as Duke usually churns out.

Other than the 2020-21 pandemic-impacted team that went 13-11 and was No. 79 in defensive efficiency with 97, the last time Duke was lower in the metric was the 2015-16 team that finished No. 86 at 100.

Lively knows how important his role will be, especially after following how Williams played last season.

“I definitely talked to him last year about his defensive presence and the ability to kind of stunt and get back to your man, block shots, clear glasses,” Lively said. “So being able to go back and forth between your man and guarding the driver. But also taking that next step and expanding your game. Being able to switch on a screen to a guard and being able to stay low and stay in front of him. That’s the next step that I’m trying to take. I’m trying to make sure that everyone knows that I can do that.”

Lively and Whitehead are the two Blue Devils most likely to be one-and-done players on this season’s team. Both freshmen are projected to be lottery picks in next summer’s NBA draft.

Yet they’ve already indicated a willingness to put in the time and effort on the defensive end needed for the Blue Devils to challenge for ACC and NCAA championships.