SAN FRANCISCO — For as demoralizing and revolutionary a thing it is, Mark Adams' signature defense sure could use a catchy nickname.
The schema that's brought Texas Tech back to a third Sweet 16 in the past four NCAA Tournaments has also kept the Red Raiders atop the sport in per-possession defense. Adams' team ranks No. 1 in defensive efficiency at KenPom.com, allowing 84.4 points per 100 possessions (adjusted for competition). It's an outright nuisance. But can't we get this defensive doctrine a proper label?
Adams' brainchild is most often referred to as a "no-middle" or "side" defense. Doesn't he realize that's not how you market in 2022? Jerry Tarkanian had the Amoeba. John Chaney had his vexing matchup zone. Jim Boeheim has practically patented the 2-3 as his own. Seems that Adams, 65 and in his first season as a head coach of a D-I program, isn't interested in branding.
Whatever you want to call it, it's a problem. And it could be the last thing Mike Krzyzewski sees before he's Duke's coach no longer.
On Thursday night, the third-seeded Red Raiders will square up with No. 2 Duke in the most compelling regional semifinal of the night. Texas Tech got here by mashing No. 14 seed Montana State and elbowing out upset-minded No. 11 seed Notre Dame. Duke kept Krzyzewski's retirement tour going by casually dispatching No. 15 seed Cal State Fullerton, then finding its most dominant five-minute stretch of the season at the exact-right moment vs. No. 7 seed Michigan State in the second round.
Now Krzyzewski finds his team in an uncommon position as the higher seed: Duke is not favored to win here. If Duke is going to stick around and get K NCAA Tournament win No. 100, it will most certainly have to do this the hard way.
It's not just that Duke will have to overcome the nation's best defense — it's also that Duke doesn't have a lot of experience this season playing against great defensive teams. Through 36 games, Duke's played just one team in the top 30 of KenPom's adjusted defensive efficiency rankings. That team is, coincidentally enough, the one Duke might have to beat again in order to make the Final Four: Gonzaga (which Duke outlasted in November). Beyond the Zags (ninth at KenPom in AdjDE), the only other teams even in the top 50 in per-possession defense to play Duke this season are: Kentucky (35th), North Carolina (42nd) and Wake Forest (46th).
These mostly green Blue Devils are in for a shock to their senses Thursday night. To know why, you need to know how Adams' enterprise fetters foes on a regular basis. Texas Tech's no-middle D relies on three bedrock principles: do not let the ball into the paint; rotate and/or switch early, with clairvoyant-level instincts; and maintain unrelenting ball pressure. It's a man-to-man defense that vexes opponents because it has quick-twitch response to inflate and briefly resemble a zone depending on where a player is with the ball.
Red Raiders' D 'can be a shock' to face
One of the foremost experts on the no-middle defense is North Texas associate head coach Ross Hodge. He runs that program's defense in its entirety. Hodge's defense helped lead the Mean Green to an upset of Purdue in the 2021 NCAA Tournament. Hodge installed the no-middle philosophy a few years ago after meeting with Adams to fully understand all the nuances of what makes this defense worth buying into.
"You have to game-plan for it, and it can be a shock to the system when you haven't faced it," Hodge said. "Like the name says, you're selling out to keep the ball out of the middle of the floor. Foot positioning, close-out angles, everything is predicated on not being driven to the middle of the floor."
Why? It limits paint touches. Limit paint touches, limit efficiency. Every metric and reference backs this up.
"You will not drive to the paint," Hodge said. "You will have to drive baseline, then you'll have an early help defender there, meeting you before you get to the paint."
Duke's players are going to experience something they haven't before. Perhaps Roach or Wendell Moore Jr. or Paolo Banchero will have some success with penetration. Maybe they'll do it in the alleyways that have openings against this defense (near the baseline). But when that happens, they're going to run into another defender who's helping. Texas Tech's recovery is teleportation-like. What makes Tech unique is its ability to switch all ball screens and all off-ball screens. Their length is like trying to see through the curtains of a car wash. The Red Raiders build a wall around the paint, and even if one guy gets beat, everyone knows at all times how and where to rotate.
"Texas Tech's physicality, versatility, depth and aggressive defense will cause all sorts of problems for Duke," one Big 12 coach told CBS Sports. "Adams' defense is most known for its switching and not allowing teams to get the ball into the paint. Many times they will have five guys on the court who are all between 6-6 and 6-10."
Kevin McCullar is TTU's most indispensable defender on a team filled with them. Terrence Shannon Jr., Bryson Williams, Davion Warren and Santos Silva all are capable of defending upward of three positions. Tech has its way with pace, and that means Duke getting to 70 points is extremely unlikely. Tech wants to beat you 55-42. TTU has given up 70 or more points two times this season: one required 50 minutes of play, as TTU fell in overtime at Kansas; the other game was an 83-73 Red Raiders home win over Baylor.
The Blue Devils also need to score as much as possible in transition in order to increase their odds of winning. Against Tech, this is way easier said than done. Beat the beast before it resets and grows five heads again. Duke might have five NBA picks on its team, two of them lottery-level in Banchero and A.J. Griffin. They're used to creating and/or finding space. Every time they turn, face, spin, a body is going to be there a half-second faster than they're used to in every other game this season.
"It can feel like there's six or seven guys out there," Hodge said.
Because college doesn't have a three-second rule for defense in the paint, beating this team off the dribble is akin climbing a mountain on one leg. This is an especially big problem for Duke, which gets more than 40% of its points in the paint. Michigan State was successful much of its game resisting Duke, before it broke Sparty's will in the final six minutes. TTU locks that door most of the game.
"This is where I consider coach Adams a defensive savant, he also knows all the nuances and they also will do things to keep you off-balance, whether it's soft-press you some, run-and-jump you some, trap you out of a timeout," Hodge said. "They have adjustments in their coverages. If it's a dynamic driver, they'll do subtle things that to the naked eye you wouldn't know they're doing it."
Physicality, how the game is called could decide it
Two ACC coaches confirmed a suspicion: no one in Duke's conference runs a defense similar to Texas Tech. (Virginia often has an elite defense, but in fact it forces the ball to the middle.) One ACC coach said the one team that only sort of has run stuff like Texas Tech to face Duke in the past two seasons is Illinois ... and the Illini beat Duke at Duke last year by 15. Then there's the physicality of Adams' team. They push the envelope with the whistle.
"Tech fouls a lot, gets away with it for some reason," an ACC coach said. "They get a good whistle. We will see if they get it vs. K. It's not me just saying it. [That is] coming from Big 12 coaches."
Said a Big 12 coach: "The level of physicality that the officials allow in this game could very well determine the outcome. Duke cannot win an overly physical game against Tech. If it's called tight, Duke has the edge."
For all Tech does that allows it to thrive defensively, there is no such thing as a perfect defense or unimpaired system. Something must be sacrificed. What is it?
"If you have size at guards, when those guards are driving and the defense does commit, they're able to see over the top of the defense and pass the ball the place where it needs to go," Hodge said. "You're talking about very, very good players that have the ability to do that. If you can get them into rotation and pass out of it, you can get some open kick-out 3s — and you better make them."
Fortunately for Duke, Griffin's turned ankle from the Michigan State game isn't going to prevent him from playing. The Blue Devils will need his 45.5% accuracy from beyond the arc. And it's not like Tech has all the advantages here. The Red Raiders have also not faced a player like Banchero: 6-foot-10, 250 pounds, a litany of skills at his disposal. He can shoot off the catch, create off the dribble, use the post, use the midrange, use the 3-point arc, and he's not a ball hog. For as much as Krzyzewski has toiled over the tape in recent days, Adams — just 10 years Krzyzewski's junior — can't be sleeping all that much either.
How Krzyzewski uses Banchero could prove to be the vital coaching decision in this game. Hodge made the case that playing Banchero and center Mark Williams all the time might play into Tech's hands.
"Coach K's won about 1,200 more games than me, but If I was him, I would strongly consider downsizing and playing Banchero at the 5 because that is the one thing that could challenge this defense," Hodge said. "If you're able to space the perimeter on them and shoot it from five spots, then you can negate some of the rotations. But if you're going to have a guy who's a non-shooter out there? Hooooey."
In talking to coaches in the Big 12 and ACC, one summation is: Moore, Banchero, Roach and Trevor Keels will need to tap into their NBA ceilings and consistently gnaw away at Tech's defense by winning one-on-one battles.
"The not-so-obvious x-factor could be Griffin," a Big 12 coach said. "If he makes four or five 3s, that will take a ton of pressure off. He has to be ready to shoot on the catch and they have to try to use skip passes to get it to him on the weak side of the floor."
The final ingredient in this game will be something Krzyzewski's all too familiar with. His team has had it as well, albeit in episodic spurts: faith in the cause. Texas Tech never quits. It keeps coming and coming and coming. A 7-2 run on this team can feel like a mission accomplished. There is no wilt, though.
"They can all move, and they believe," Hodge said. "For all of his defensive tactical magic, Mark's a master at the psychological. He's as good a motivator as there is."
Should Duke falter, should Thursday, March 24, 2022 signal the end of the greatest career in college coaching, maybe then a moniker can be manufactured for this distinct defensive tactic of Adams'. Duke was afforded some geographic leniency with its three-hour drive to Greenville, South Carolina, for the first weekend. Now, between a cross-country flight and a region — the only region — that has its top four seeds still standing, the bracket gods have sent their message loud and clear.
On Thursday night, the Blue Devils will step into the Chase Center and go face-to-face with a five-headed beast. It's fated to be the toughest game Duke's played this season. The same might be said for Texas Tech. It's John Wooden and Mike Krzyzewski tied atop the all-time list in men's college basketball with 12 Final Fours apiece. How fitting that Krzyzewski has at least one more legitimate X-and-O challenge in order to get there. If K is to have the record all his own, his team will have to have to earn it like few Duke teams have ever done before.