Defending Duke's Dribble Penetration

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 4 Duke’s offensive strengths include the frontrunner for ACC Player of the Year honors in the post and a lethal touch from beyond the arc. No. 15 North Carolina’s ability to limit dribble penetration will be key in containing both options.

“I think offensively they have the best balance of any team in college basketball because they can score inside and they have terrific 3-point shooters,” UNC head coach Roy Williams said on Tuesday. “That might make them more difficult to guard than anybody.”

Those are not reassuring words for a UNC team that allowed Pittsburgh to shoot 66.1 percent from the floor in Saturday’s 89-76 loss. To be fair, the Tar Heels still rank 37th nationally in field goal percentage defense (39.2) despite season-long issues on the defensive glass and against dribble penetration.

Both will be a factor at Cameron Indoor on Wednesday night, although the latter plays into Duke’s offensive design.

UNC’s defense is based upon the principle of limiting the high percentage shot by keeping the ball as far away from the goal as possible. When penetration occurs, help defense steps in, whether it’s from the wing or the post. If a big steps into help, the next closest guard is tasked with sliding into the passing lane of helper’s post responsibility. In either situation, the only possible open look should come from long range.

Duke has a long resume of dismantling opposing defenses by getting into the lane, forcing help and then dumping off to bigs for easy baskets or kicking out for 3-point shots.

In a shooting drill video from 2013, former Duke assistant and current Northwestern head coach Chris Collins explained how Mike Krzyzewski teaches his players to penetrate off the dribble:

“We say drive to score. I want them thinking about scoring. You drive to score, and then all of a sudden, the defense collapses and now I have my bailouts on kicks.”

By limiting Duke’s dribble penetration, UNC reduces the number of times its defense has to help and rotate to cover the open man, whether he’s in the post or behind the arc.

Williams told reporters the key to defending penetration is quick feet, determination and constant drilling so that the on-the-ball defender is effective in staying in front of his man while everybody else is willing to show and help early to slow the driver down.

Junior guard Marcus Paige indicated the closeout was the most critical aspect of containing Duke’s dribble penetration.

“They try to get you to help from the wings and support the drive so that they can shoot a lot of threes,” Paige said. “For me, closing out under control is the most important thing. You can always be late to get a hand up on the shot, but if you close out out of control, they’re going to beat you off the dribble and then it’s going to open up their entire offense. So I just try to close out and stay low and keep my guy in front.

“If you can guard your man without help, it helps tremendously against Duke.”

Containing the Blue Devils’ drive into the lane will go a long ways toward accomplishing that goal.

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