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UCF's bold defensive strategy exposes Duke's flaws

UCF's bold defensive strategy exposes Duke's flaws

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COLUMBIA, S.C. — Johnny Dawkins’ team didn’t give the college basketball world the upset of the NCAA Tournament, but the former Duke star and assistant might have delivered the blueprint for knocking off the Blue Devils.

One caveat though — that blueprint relies largely on the largest human in college basketball — as Central Florida used the 7-6, 310-pound Tacko Fall to give Duke fits in their instant-classic on Sunday night.

Of course, the scouting report pointed out everything about Fall’s strengths and weaknesses, but there’s only so much preparation for the tallest player in college basketball.

“How do you know what to expect? He’s huge, he’s a great player,” Duke freshman guard RJ Barrett said. “What do you do with a guy that’s a foot taller than you?”

Fall was the centerpiece of a unique defensive strategy for UCF, which used the big man to protect the rim against freight-train drives from Zion Williamson and Barrett, while the Knights deployed their guards selectively on the perimeter, daring everyone that wasn’t Barrett or Cam Reddish to shoot 3-pointers.

At times, the Knights had Fall assigned to Jones, standing several feet away inside the paint.

With the Blue Devils ranking 329th nationally in 3-point percentage, UCF picked its poison and nearly lived to tell about it as Duke hit 10 of 25 attempts.

On several plays in the second half, Jones and Jordan Goldwire put up attempts that looked more like free throws as defenders refused to challenge their shots, instead maintaining the wall they’d built in the lane.

Mike Krzyzewski talked to Goldwire, who was hitting 9.1 percent of his attempts coming into Sunday night, about the fact that defenses would give him a chance to shoot.

Just how big that chance was shocked him.

“A little bit just because they were playing off so far,” he said. “I knew they weren’t going to try to play me because we have two guys who attack the rim really hard.”

Goldwire made 1 of his 3 attempts, with the lone make coming during a key stretch late in the second half. Jones got the same treatment, hitting 1 of his 8 attempts.

With the Knights content to play inside the 3-point arc, Williamson and Barrett ran into challenges unlike anything they’ve experienced this season as Fall protected the rim and multiple defenders collapsed on every drive.

Fall blocked three shots and altered several more. Several times he avoided fouls by keeping himself vertical and using his 8-foot wingspan, and other times, Williamson and Krzyzewski was frustrated by contact that didn’t draw fouls.

Williamson, who hit 12 of 24 attempts on his way to 32 points, was clearly frustrated before Barrett talked with him.

“I just tried to get him to calm down,” Barrett said. “I remember I told him one time, ‘Calm down; you’re good, keep going. You’re going to get the foul,’ and he got the foul called at the end.”

With the big man holding down the paint before foul trouble caught up, UCF was able to dictate tempo by forcing long possessions. Rather than letting the Blue Devils run, the Knights played at their preferred pace with 65 points, limiting Duke to two points on the fast-break.

It might not have been good enough for the victory on Sunday, but Dawkins’ approach could be good enough — and daring enough — to help someone down the road.

“Obviously, Johnny's team was magnificent,” Krzyzewski said. “They were so well prepared. That's as high a level of any team that we've played against all year; they were men.”

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