Thursday, March 27, 2008

Year of the Defense

In what is now its third annual incarnation - a look at the teams remaining in the Sweet 16. For what it's worth, my titling of these year's has been, well, less than successful in terms of predicting a final four. The first year was offense heavy in the Sweet 16, and none of the 7 best offensive teams in the Sweet 16 made the final 4. Last year was one of balance - and that prediction held better. UCLA was the only Final Four team not in the top 20 in both offense and defense. This year, the remaining teams are collectively stronger on the defensive side of the ball. The top 6 defensive teams in the country are all alive and well, compared to only 5 of the top 10 on the offensive side of the ball. The 5 that didn't make the Sweet 16 all had poor defenses - no one ranked higher than 56th, and Oregon's was worst at 120th. Three teams are in the top 10 in both categories, and two of those - UCLA and Memphis - have better defenses than offenses. If this trend holds, it gives cause for concern to those teams that are more heavily dependent on their offenses - UNC (#2 offense, #29 defense), Texas (#3 offense, #32 defense), and Tennessee (#11 offense, #22 defense). Here are the lists.

1) Kansas - 126.7
2) UNC - 126.5
3) Texas - 123.0
6) UCLA - 119.3
10) Memphis - 118.4
11) Tennessee - 118.3
14) Washington State - 118.0
15) Xavier - 117.9
18) Michigan State - 117.5
21) Stanford - 116.8
25) West Virginia - 116.3
27) Wisconsin - 116.0
31) Davidson - 115.1
35) Louisville - 114.7
60) Villanova - 110.4
62) Western Kentucky - 110.3

1) Wisconsin - 81.1
2) UCLA - 82.8
3) Memphis - 83.9
4) Kansas - 84.1
5) Louisville - 84.2
6) Washington State - 86.7
9) Stanford - 87.3
19) Michigan State - 89.3
22) Tennessee - 89.8
23) West Virginia - 89.9
26) Xavier - 90.6
29) UNC - 90.8
32) Texas - 91.5
36) Villanova - 92.0
40) Davidson - 92.3
68) Western Kentucky - 94.5

Monday, March 24, 2008

West Virginia 73, Duke 67

The big question in the mind of Duke fans out there is, quite simply, what happened? Through the game at Virginia, Duke had a dynamic, multi-dimensional offense that could score in a variety of ways - really every way except consistent back-to-the-basket scoring - and that was as efficient as any in the country. Yes, there had been a couple of hiccups along the way (most notably the Pitt game), but by and large, against both good opponents and bad, the offense was a well-oiled machine. And for good reason: Duke had 7 players that could shoot the three, plus 5 that could reliably get into the lane and finish one-on-one. The offensive spacing was designed to create both driving lanes on the inside and open looks on the outside, and it largely accomplished this goal.

And then, all of a sudden, something happened. The offense went from multi-dimensional to one-dimensional, dynamic to static. Duke had just 9 games all year with an offensive rating lower than 103. Four of these occurred in the last five games - UNC, Clemson, Belmont, West Virginia. Duke had just 10 games all year with an efg below 50%. Again, four of these occurred in the last five games. Part of the drop off came from a change in the defense - Duke forced fewer turnovers, scored fewer points off of turnovers, and fewer fast break points - just over 5 per game in the above-mentioned four. But another part came from what appeared to be a loss of confidence in the offense as a whole. The flow, the movement, the willingness to pass out of drives - it just wasn't there. Duke recorded just 15 assists combined in the NCAA tournament, after recording at least that many in 16 separate games this season. And of course, part of it came from shots going cold at just the wrong time. In the four above-mentioned games, Duke shot a combined 27.6% from three - in all other games combined this year, Duke shot 39.1% (and even in all other ACC games, Duke was 37.7%).

As for why this sudden transformation occurred, I really have no idea. Generally speaking, this was as well-conditioned a team as Duke has had. Only Nelson played more than 30 min/game. I really don't believe that they were hit by fatigue (although the flu has been tossed around as a possible explanation - as to the merits of this, I'm not a team doctor). Something just happened. Coach K gets the offseason (or at least the part when he's not in Beijing) to try to figure out why and to try to prevent it from happening again.

That being said, Duke's defensive performance against West Virginia was largely stellar (with one glaring exception). I spent so much time watching Scheyer play ball-denial against Alex Ruoff because it was so much fun to watch. Try as he might, Ruoff could hardly get the ball in his hands. Scheyer did the same thing to Sean Marshall last year, and will do the same thing again to prime-time shooters over the next couple of years - he's just an excellent off-the-ball defender. West Virginia shot just as poorly as Duke did, and turned the ball over a lot. The only downside was our inability to secure a rebound. People jumped on this as a "key weakness" for Duke, as if we got dominated on the glass every game. That's simply not true - this game was probably our worst rebounding game of the season. In most games, Duke was a very competent rebounding team. True, we didn't have a single dominant rebounder, but the squad hit the boards well as a unit. Again, for whatever reason, they simply didn't get the job done on the glass against West Virginia.

Around the ACC

UNC's offense = wow. They scored over 1.5 points per possession over the weekend, and the total line is just ridiculous. 72 of 104 from 2. 15 of 32 from 3. 29 of 55 available offensive rebounds. 53 assists. 16 turnovers. Who cares if they didn't really play defense. If you score like that, it just doesn't matter.

VT's defense = wow. They held UAB to about .70 points per possession, and notably forced Robert Vaden into a 3 of 17 shooting night. They would have been such a dangerous 11 or 12 seed in the tourney - I guarantee you Michigan State is very, very happy they didn't have to play the Hokies.

Miami's comeback = so close. It was frantic and furious, and it almost panned out (with a little airball assistance from DJ Augustin - this reminded me so much of Mike Dunleavy in Dec. 2000), but the better team prevailed in the end. By the way, Texas gets to play the rest of its games in its home state - I also guarantee you Memphis isn't happy about having to take on 30,000 Longhorn fans to get to San Antonio.

Virginia = still alive, after storming back to beat ODU. Thank goodness.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

West Virginia Preview

Let's take a closer look at the Mountaineers, this afternoon's opponent. After Thursday's win, West Virginia moved up to #19 in the Pomeroy Ratings. Their adjusted offense and defense are about equal relative to other schools - the former is 23rd in the country, the latter 24th. West Virginia played a very light non-conference schedule. They lost to their two toughest opponents (Tennessee, by only 2, and Oklahoma by 6), and their toughest foe after that was either Winthrop or New Mexico State. In conference play, they got to 11-7 largely by avoiding bad losses - their two best wins in conference play were over Marquette and Pittsburgh, both at home. The remaining nine victories were over Syracuse, St. John's (twice), Seton Hall, Rutgers, Providence (twice), South Florida, and DePaul. Thus, against top competition, the Mountaineers generally lost - 2-7 against the top 50 in the regular season.

As mentioned on Wednesday, the single thing the Mountaineers do best is avoid turnovers - 6th in the nation in terms of holding on to the ball. That's helped propel a team with shooting and rebounding that are both just slightly above average to the top 10% of the offensive rankings. Each and every West Virginia player is stingy with the basketball - Nichols, Ruoff, Alexander, and Butler are all in the top 500 in the country for their low turnover rates. When it comes to putting the ball in the basket, all four mentioned above are equally capable (and almost equally responsible). Ruoff and Nichols are the outside specialists, Butler and Alexander love working inside, and Alexander gets to the line a lot (where he's an 81.3% free throw shooter). Ruoff's easily the best shooter on the team, and one of the best in the country - his 61.0% efg ranks 50th.

Aside from Jamie Smalligan, whose minutes are limited, West Virginia lacks a big body in the middle. But they do have 5 guys who run between 6'6" and 6'8", at least three of which are on the court at any given time. This is not a small team, particularly on the wings, where they will have a size advantage over Duke.

West Virginia has discarded much of Beilein ball, but it's likely that these players remember its principles. After seeing how well the spread and backcuts by Belmont worked, look for West Virginia to reach back to last year, at least some, and spread guys around the perimeter to test Duke's defense. For Duke, it would be ideal for them to adopt an attack mentality in this game, and try to get the ball going toward the basket via the drive or the pass. West Virginia is very foul prone, and although Wellington Smith and Joe Alexander are good shotblockers, they tend to pick up early fouls. The Mountaineers are not particularly adept at defending the three, so if Duke can get the perimeter guys looking to help on drivers and cutters, it could open up better opportunities from the outside. And Duke has to be careful not to give the ball away. Over the past month, Duke's turnover percentage has been a problem, and they've been committing some of the same unforced errors that plagued them last season. West Virginia is not particularly aggressive about trying to take the ball away, so Duke can't help them out by giving it up for free.

Of course, foul trouble and turnovers won't matter as much if Duke can't hit shots. Keep an eye on Duke's efg% throughout the game. If it's 50% or better, smile - Duke is 23-1 this year with an efg of 50% or more (Miami is responsible for the 1). If it's under 50%, be concerned. When Duke isn't hitting the equivalent of half their shots (remember, you only need to hit 1/3 of your threes for a 50% efg), they're just 5-4, and the wins are over Princeton, Cornell, Temple, Georgia Tech, and Belmont. Reaching 50% has been less certain in recent weeks - the team has failed to hit that mark in 5 of the last ten games, after being at least that efficient in 19 of the first 23. So Devils, go out there and hit your shots today, and let's head back to the Sweet 16 - it wasn't the same last year without you!

Around the ACC

Carolina cruised, to no one's surprise. It was their most efficient offensive performance of the year, and they excelled in all categories - 65.5% efg, 12% turnover rate, and 58.1% on the offensive glass (the Heels got 18 of their 31 misses). That earned the regulars a healthy rest - Wood, Moody, Wooten, Tanner, and Campbell played the last 5 minutes of the game, and only Hansbrough, Green, and Ellington played more than 20 minutes. Of ever so slight concern, Mt. St. Mary's scored almost a point per possession. But that number was helped by 5 minutes against the scrubs - before the walk-ons came in, UNC's D Rating was around 90 - still high for an opponent like Mt. St. Mary's, but less cause for concern.

Jack McClinton pulled the Canes on his back and carried them by St. Mary's in the second half, putting up 30 of his 38 points in the last 20 minutes. He was 12-19 from the floor, including 3-6 from 3, and hit all 11 of his free throws. As a reward, the Canes earn a second round matchup with Texas on Sunday, who rather easily disposed of Austin Peay.

And then there was Clemson. With a few minutes left in the first half, it was 36-18, and I was thinking about putting on a movie. Then Nova cut it to 12 by halftime. And then the Tigers went ice, ice cold. 7 of 28 in the second half, including just 2 of 16 from behind the arc. Conversely, 'Nova couldn't miss - 11 of 17, including all four 3-pointers, and a very impressive 22 of 27 from the line. All in all, it ended up being a 24 point turnaround in under 24 minutes, and the Tigers suddenly found themselves heading home. Another frustrating come-from-ahead loss for the 2008 Tigers to put on their mantle next to the two Tar Heel games, and a trendy final four pick bowed out in the first round.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Great Escape

(Disclaimer: I haven't watched the game. I was at the first round games in Anaheim today, and for some reason my DVR decided not to tape it. I was having a heart attack constantly refreshing my blackberry for the score, and ended up completely missing about 7 minutes of BYU-Texas A&M, even though I never left my seat.)

The box score shows two teams that played almost equal games. Shooting, free throws, turnovers, even rebounds, all were very close. Which is what you expect in the NCAA tournament, and what you expect in a 1-point game. It is not, however, what you expect in a 2/15 matchup. Gerald Henderson's coast-to-coast layup and DeMarcus Nelson's steal mean that this game will be a footnote, rather than Exhibit A. An almost, a what-might-have-been. It would have been the biggest first-round upset in NCAA history, not because it was the biggest talent disparity between teams, but because of Duke's pedigree. Instead, it's another Georgetown 50, Princeton 49 - remembered, but not legend.

So how did the Devils find themselves in this situation? First, Belmont had an excellent game plan - spread the floor, take advantage of Duke's overplays, and go 1-on-1 wherever there's a mismatch. It sounds a lot like the gameplan Georgetown ran against us in their win at the MCI Center two years ago, and it's a style of offense that Duke has always been and will always be vulnerable to. Kudos to the Bruins for executing it so well, and to Coach Byrd for drawing it up. Second, Duke was 6-21 from 3. This team needs the outside to open up the inside, because it can't really do it vice versa. When the outside shots aren't falling, the offense will always be less than optimal. And third, Duke missed some opportunities. They had 13 offensive rebounds, but only 9 second chance points. They had 11 steals, but only 14 points of turnovers and 10 fast break points. Turnovers and offensive rebounds are the best chances for easy points, but the Devils couldn't get them easily tonight. Nonetheless, they did just enough (and I mean just enough) to scrape out a win. West Virginia awaits - more on that matchup tomorrow.

Around the ACC

The only other ACC team in action tonight was the Maryland Terrapins, who bowed out of the NIT in a loss at Syracuse. While it's disappointing to see the Terps leave the NIT so quickly, Syracuse was probably a better team no matter where the game was played, and certainly better in the Carrier Dome. Gist and Osby combined for 44 and 18 on excellent shooting, but the Terps couldn't get outside shots to fall and couldn't get stops at all. The ACC currently stands at 4-2 in all postseason play, with Miami, Clemson, and UNC lacing them up for the first time tomorrow.

East ACC Pod Preview

Speaking of UNC, here's the preview for their pod, which on Saturday could present the first in a series of difficult matchups for the Tar Heels on the road to San Antonio.

2nd Round Sweet 16
97.76% 70.84%
63.79% 20.97%
Arkansas 36.21% 8.06%
Mt. St. Marys 2.24% 0.13%

Indiana as an 8 seed is one of the most unusual decisions the committee has made in a while - it clearly has bought into the notion that the Hoosier players are simply not interested in playing for Dan Dakich. The Hoosiers have both the stats and the record to merit a 5 or 6 seed, not to mention the talent. Eric Gordon is a prime-time player as a freshman guard, and DJ White is as strong and talented of a low post player as UNC will have seen all year. The offense revolves around this inside-outside combo, and particularly thrives on getting both players to the line - nearly 500 attempts between the two of them. If the team that played for Kelvin Sampson shows up, they should have no trouble with Arkansas, and should give the Heels a run for their money. But if the team that lost 3 of its last 4 a) by 29 to Michigan State; b) to Penn State; and c) to Minnesota shows up, they'll be headed home hat in hand before the weekend. I'd like to think DJ White has too much pride to let that happen, but who knows. As for Arkansas, the Razorbacks have been a little bit of an afterthought in this matchup, but they're a mighty talented team themselves. Patrick Beverly and Sonny Weems are solid offensive threats, and Beverly is a tremendous rebounder for a 6'1" guard. Arkansas has three big bodies that love banging the offensive boards for second chance points - Darian Townes, Charles Thomas, and Steven Hill. And those same big bodies have made it very tough on opponents to score inside - Arkansas is 13th nationally in block rate. But the Razorback offense is less than stellar and they really shoot themselves in the foot by turning it over a ton. Still, with 4 guys 6'10" or taller, Arkansas has the height to make life miserable for DJ White and Tyler Hansbrough, if they can advance.

UNC starts off the weekend with Mt. St. Mary's, winner of the play-in game. It's a team playing for a fallen fellow athlete - a track star at the school died just before the conference championship. Unfortunately for Mt. St. Mary's, this is not a matchup they can plausibly win. UNC is one of the best two rebounding teams in the country (along with UCLA) - the Mountaineers are short, and one of the worst rebounding teams in the tourney. UNC loves putting its guys (Hansbrough especially) on the line - the Mountaineers struggle to limit opponents' free throw attempts. UNC is more vulnerable to being beat from the perimeter than from inside - the Mountaineers are not a good outside shooting team. But regardless of what happens tomorrow, they picked up an emotional win on Tuesday and have an NCAA Tournament victory in 2008, which is more than 309 other teams in college basketball can say.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

West ACC Pod Preview

The West region is where our own Duke Blue Devils reside. Their pod includes two high quality opponents in the 7/10 game and a 24-game winner in Belmont. But first, the odds of reaching the Sweet 16:

2nd Round Sweet 16
97.42% 67.58%
West Virginia 50.00% 16.14%
Arizona 50.00% 16.14%
Belmont 2.58% 0.15%

You'll notice that West Virginia and Arizona are essentially equal (I believe West Virgina has an ever so slight advantage that goes out somewhere past the three decimals Pomeroy puts up on his site). However, the truth of their equality depends on how much you trust Pomeroy's SOS adjustment - in raw terms, West Virginia's slightly better on offense and a whole lot better on defense. The Mountaineers are no longer the bombs-away boys of the Beilien era, although they maintain at least one of the same tendencies - they never turn the ball over. In fact, that's really the hallmark of the offense - West Virginia is a decidedly ordinary in terms of shooting, rebounding, and getting to the line. Joe Alexander primarily carries the offense, but Darris Nichols, Alex Ruoff, and Da'Sean Butler are all valuable contributors. For Arizona, its the B&B show - Bayless and Budinger are the only reliable and consistent offensive threats. Bayless is really something - I've seen him play in person, and he merits every bit of the lottery talk surrounding him. But the 'Cats supporting cast is pretty poor overall, and there's a good possibility that the team simply never bought into the Kevin O'Neill era. That's especially true on defense, where Arizona doesn't rebound well, doesn't force turnovers, and doesn't really prevent the ball from going in the basket. Arizona probably has the two best players in this game (and maybe three of the best four, if you count Jordan Hill), but they don't have the best team.

The Belmont Bruins will try to pull a Hampton-esque upset over the second-seeded Devils. About the only thing Belmont does well is shoot the ball, and their effective field goal percentage is boosted because they shoot 47.6% of their shots from beyond the arc - 7th in the nation. 5 players attempted over 100 threes, including Andy Wicke, who took 200, and Keaton Belcher, who hit triple digits in just 13 minutes/game. The Bruins are a deep team, with 10 players averaging double digit minutes. Jordan Hare, the team's only senior, is also the unequivocal leader - he takes the most shots, and is deadly at the line. On defense, though, Belmont is not very good. They're relatively easy to score on, they don't force turnovers, and they are just terrible on the glass. They're a dangerous first round opponent, because they could potentially get hot from outside and put up a big number on the scoreboard. But Duke is equally capable of putting up a big number, and will almost certainly have an easier time doing so against the Belmont defense than vice versa.

Around the ACC

Virginia Tech carried forward their quality play, handling a decent Morgan State team a 32-point defeat. The Hokies opened the second half by making their first 15 field goals, and shot 19 of 23 overall in the second frame. AD Vassallo had a terrific shooting game, and the Hokies got to go very deep into the bench and rest up their players. Next up is UAB, also at the Cassell.

South ACC Pod Preview

The conference's lone representative in the South region is 7th-seeded Miami. Despite being the higher seed, Miami is an ever-so-slight statistical underdog to St. Mary's (and both have lower than 1 in 5 odds against Texas).

2nd Round Sweet 16
97.53% 79.08%
49.75% 10.25%
St. Mary's 50.25% 10.43%
Austin Peay 2.47% 0.24%

Texas showed this season that the recruiting class in addition to that Durant guy last year had some seriously good players. You've all certainly heard about DJ Augustin, but just as integral to the team's success has been the development of Damion James. As a freshman, he showed the ability to be an inside presence on both ends of the court, but he gave little contribution away from the basket. This year he's taken on much more of the scoring load and showed reliable touch from outside - 44.1% from 3 on about 2 attempts per game. He and Connor Atchley are very, very tricky matchups because both can take their defender outside, as well as beat you down low. As a team, Texas has the second most efficient offense in the country largely by never turning it over and by relentlessly attacking the offensive glass (James in particular). Austin Peay also hangs on to the ball remarkably well, but unlike Texas, they're quite proficient in forcing TOs as well. The Governors lead the entire nation in steal percentage. Unfortunately, that's the only thing they do well on defense - they play the absolute worst fg% defense of any team in the tournament. On offense, Austin Peay shares the scoring load pretty well - all 5 starters score between 12-16 points per game. Todd Babington, who's hit 90 threes on the year, is the most likely to keep this interesting.

In the 7/10 matchup, a lot of people (and numbers, see above) see St. Mary's as the favorite and better team. However, they come into the NCAAs losing 3 of 5, and the offense isn't what it was earlier in the year. But the loss to Gonzaga notwithstanding, the defense is still very good. St. Mary's is one of the toughest teams in the nation to score against. Opponents can't score inside (44.2% from 2) or outside (30.3% from 3). Diamon Simpson and Omar Sahman do excellent work protecting the rim. Dwayne Collins will likely not have a career high in this one. On offense, the Gaels rely heavily on Patty Mills outside, and Simpson inside. By the way, just 2 seniors in the St. Mary's rotation - they'll be very good again next year. As for Miami, people have pointed out that they were outscored by conference opponents. Which is true. By 18 points, to be precise. Of course, as I pointed out before, Miami played the single toughest schedule in conference, traveling to almost all the difficult home venues and hosting almost all the best road warriors. Plus, Miami finished conference play on a 6-2 push (7-3 if you count the ACCT) that included two road wins and a win over Duke. Miami will be looking first and foremost (and second and next-most) to Jack McClinton to carry the offense. St. Mary's is a tough draw for the Canes, because their primary point of struggle is putting the ball in the basket - no one on the team shoots particularly well, and only a low turnover rate and an ability to get to and convert from the line made their offense even average. They scored just 49 points against Virginia Tech on Friday, and could struggle to crack 60 against St. Mary's.

Around the ACC - NIT Action

First the good - Maryland won @ Minnesota thanks to their defense. The Terps shot under 40% and turned the ball over a ton but still managed to pick up the win. Of course, the Gophers shot much, much worse - 13 of 37 from 2, and 8 for 30 from 3. Ugh. Next up for the Terps - a trip the 'Cuse.

And the bad - FSU lost in overtime to Akron. Another ugly game - it was tied at 51! going into the extra frame. Uche Echefu and Jason Rich recorded double doubles, although Echefu's (20 points, 10 rebounds) was much more helpful than Rich's (10 rebounds, 10 turnovers). In a 225 minute game (45 minutes x 5 players), FSU got a grand total of 34 minutes and 3 points from the bench. FSU lost this one because they simple couldn't hold on the ball - Akron got give-aways once out of every 3 possessions. Ugh.

CBI Action

In the new (lesser) tournament, Virginia snuck by Richmond 66-64. Singletary led the way with 18. I really don't have much to say about this. Quite frankly, I'm very disappointed to see three underwhelming performances from the ACC. If we're going to lay claim to being the best conference in the country, we can't go throwing three dogs out there on one night again.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Midwest ACC Pod Preview

This year, with only four ACC teams, in the tournament, they're rather tidily divided among the four regions. First to get a look is the Midwest, where the recent finalist Clemson Tigers suit up as the 5 seed.

2nd Round Sweet 16
Vanderbilt 77.07% 23.98%
Clemson 76.97% 60.71%
Villanova 23.03% 12.44%
22.93% 2.87%

By the numbers, Clemson is a heavy favorite to come out of this region on top. To give you an idea of how far Clemson grades out ahead of Vanderbilt, consider the following - Clemson's winning percentage against Vanderbilt (75.2%) is just barely shy of Vanderbilt's winning percentage against Siena. So in layman's terms, the statistical gap between the Tigers and the 'Dores is as large as that between Vanderbilt and Siena.

As for the 4-13 matchup, Vanderbilt encounters, in Siena, one of the most extreme teams in college basketball. The Saints are in the top 10 nationally in 4 categories and the top 52 in 4 others, but rank below 200 in 8 separate categories. Siena is one of the hardest teams to turnover, one of the best in picking up steals, and one of the least likely to send an opponent to the line (oddly enough, opponent's also shoot just 64.5% from the line against Siena, 11th worst in the nation). However, they're a terrible rebounding team and very poor in field goal percentage defense. The Saints got lucky in one regard - Vanderbilt is also a poor rebounding team, and not likely to exploit Siena too heavily on the glass. But the 'Dores are in the top 25 in shooting percentage, and 7th nationally from beyond the arc. Moreover, Vanderbilt is reasonably stingy in terms of giving the ball away. For the Saints to win, they absolutely need to force turnovers and score in transition, and they need Edwin Ubiles to have a big game. But Shan Foster, AJ Ogilvy, and company will likely prove too talented to overcome. Shan Foster is having a ridiculous season - 67.7 efg%, coming from 61.8% from 2 and 47.5% from 3. Wow.

In the 5/12 matchup, Clemson gets a Villanova team that grades out very similarly to Vanderbilt in terms of overall efficiency, but not in style of play. While the Commodores are very lax on defense and rely heavily on the offense to carry the day, Villanova uses a generally stingy defense to carry a rather poor offense. No Wildcat shoots the ball well, particularly not Corey Fisher and Scottie Reynolds, who take the lion's share of the shots. The offense is somewhat vulnerable to the turnover, and extremely vulnerable to the blocked shot - only 14 teams in America had a higher percentage of shot attempts blocked. Clemson, of course, can exploit both of these areas well. The Tigers are 29th in the nation forcing turnovers and 30th blocking shots. If Clemson starts racking up the steals and blocks, it'll be look out below for Villanova.

The likely pod final is Clemson-Vanderbilt. Clemson is simply the better team, and their style of defense is designed to neutralize the Commodores' biggest threat - the 3-ball. Clemson, like Duke, forces teams to score inside the arc. Part of this comes from the full court press, which can result in lots of layups (or at least layup attempts) for a team that breaks it. But part of it also comes from harassing perimeter defense by Hammonds, Perry, and Rivers that is more than happy to feed guards into Booker and Gist, who block tons of shots, especially for their size. Clemson is simply a better team than Vanderbilt (and underrated on the whole - they score 13th in the pre-tournament Pomeroy Ratings), and should win this game.

Of course, the 800 pound gorilla in the room is free throw shooting. Memphis and Winthrop are the only tournament teams that shoot worse from the line than the Tigers. In a perverse way of demonstrating the law of averages, Clemson opponents are almost as good from the line as the Tigers are bad - they shoot 71.2% from the stripe, a full 7% better than Clemson and 68th best in the country. If either game comes down to a free throw shooting contest, Clemson is likely to have difficulty holding on. The key for the Tigers will be to get the ball to their best free throw shooters - Oglesby, Stitt, and Rivers - and then cross their fingers nonetheless.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

ACC Wrap-Up

Another great escape for UNC. Another disappointment for the Tigers. This time, however, the two didn't happen in the same game. Carolina barely snuck by Virginia Tech on what was, to be perfectly honest, a player-of-the-year type play by Tyler Hansbrough (followed by an America's Funniest Home Videos type dance/run in celebration). Side note to Jeff Allen - on the last offensive play of the game, you maybe, just maybe, want to think about boxing out the best rebounder in the ACC. Just a thought.

As for the Hokies, at least Seth Greenberg can look forward to next year. It took half a season to get his freshmen up to speed and to figure out his rotation. That half a season cost them their bid. But they played as good as anyone in the country after mid-February. They lost two games - at Clemson, and essentially at UNC - by 3 points and 4.4 seconds. They played the absolute best defense against the Tar Heels as any team all season. If the season were a week longer, or the Hokies had come together a week or so earlier (or freaking Georgia hadn't run over the SEC), they might have been sitting there as a deadly matchup for a 5 seed (you think Drake would want to play the Hokies right now?). But it was not to be. Still, with everyone except D-ron back next season, the Hokies are in prime position for another tourney run in 2008-09.

In the championship game, Carolina won it in about 7 minutes of play. From the 15 minute mark to the 8 minute mark of the second half, the Heels turned a 1-point lead into 13, scoring 22 points in 13 possessions, during which Clemson recorded precisely zero defensive rebounds (UNC had 10 scoring possessions and 3 turnovers, and picked offensive boards on all 4 of their missed shots). Although Clemson made a valiant run to get back in it, the 13 point deficit was just too much to overcome. KC Rivers played one heck of a game, and Booker was fierce down low on defense, but it wasn't enough for the Tigers.

Now it's on to the tournament. Only 4 teams in the ACC got in, and while we can all bitch and moan about the top RPI conference getting the fewest teams of any major conference (tied with the Big 10), the only team that really had possible cause for complaint was Virginia Tech, and when you lose games to Penn State and Richmond, you can't complain too loudly. Early returns on the brackets are that UNC got a rough road (Tennessee, Louisville, Indiana, even Notre Dame), Clemson has a chance to make some noise, Miami got a reasonably good matchup with St. Mary's, and Duke has a decent shot of matching up with UCLA in the Elite 8. Check back in during the week for more in depth pod previews, and a look at those teams continuing their post-season play in non-NCAA environments.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

ACC, Day 3

So after a season in which the conference set a record for close games and overtime games, the ACC tournament has been largely anti-climactic thus far. Not a single close game yesterday, and only one real upset (BC over Maryland). The top two teams in the conference put up 82-70 wins over their opponents, and Clemson just immolated BC. Virginia Tech scored an important (and convincing) victory over Miami, but conventional wisdom says they still need one more.

Today's games, hopefully, figure to be better. Virginia Tech has been a different team since getting the snot kicked out of them by UNC. They're only loss in that timeframe is by 1 at Clemson. Carolina fans should not be comfortable. During the late game, Duke and Clemson should be an excellent, excellent game. The Tigers lost by 13 at Cameron back in January, and I think they're eager to get another shot at Duke. Last night's performance was nothing short of ridiculous (of course, it's easier when your opponent gives up with about 12-15 minutes to go - shameful effort on BC's part at the end of the game) - they literally wore out the nets with dunk after dunk after dunk.

As for Duke, they simply controlled the game for 32 minutes. Except for an 8 minute, 19-2 run by the Jackets to open the second half, Duke largely got any shot it wanted and prevented Georgia Tech from doing the same. Once again, it was a balanced effort on Duke's part - Scheyer and Nelson were rock-solid, Henderson hit several big shots, and Paulus had good touch from outside. They overcame foul trouble to Singler, they used the bench well, and they picked up a good win. Even the defense was strong - it has been much, much improved over the last 3-4 games. Duke will need to be prepared for a fight today - and 8-minute lull like they had against the Jackets may be too much to overcome against the Tigers.

Updated Odds

I did an update on the pythagorean odds of winning, based just on the four remaining teams and incorporating the game stats from Thursday and Friday. UNC is 84.9% to reach Sunday, and 44.7% to win; Duke is 70.4% and 38.8%; Clemson is 29.6% and 10.5%; and Virginia Tech is 15.1% and 2.9%.

Friday, March 14, 2008

ACC, Day 2

Not much drama yesterday. Florida State, Miami, and Georgia Tech all won rather easily, and Maryland couldn't come back against Boston College to save their slim hope of a tournament bid. NC State completed a crap-tastic season with a brick-fest against Miami, and Virginia decided to not bother playing defense against the Yellow Jackets, who shot 60.6% from 2 and 54.2% from 3.

Florida State v. UNC
All of a sudden, very, very quietly, FSU is saying "don't forget about us" in the at large picture. They absolutely, positively, no questions asked must beat UNC to even have a chance (and even then I'm not sure their work would be done). Luckily for them, they have a decent shot. Toney Douglas has played two absolutely terrible games against UNC, and it's unlikely he'll play as poorly the third time around. Also, the Noles have a knack for injuring Ty Lawson, so there's that.

Miami v. Virginia Tech
For the Hokies, it's a play-in game, and a chance to show they can beat a top team, which, um, they haven't done this year. The optimist in me says it's win-and-in for Virginia Tech, especially with all the bubble teams losing all around them, but I know their resume is less than desirable. As a somewhat related aside, the ACC tournament managed to place all the chippy teams on one side of the bracket - FSU, Virginia Tech, Miami. If I'm a Tar Heel fan , I'm really not excited about my team having to face two of those three teams in back-to-back games. Maybe it's a good reason for Roy to fold up the tents and bow out in round 1 =).

Georgia Tech v. Duke
The Devils are in serious trouble if Georgia Tech shoots 33-57. Then again, that kind of performance is almost certainly not sustainable, even for two games. Duke played its best defensive game of the last month against the Yellow Jackets in Cameron, and Tech still hasn't shown they can hang onto the ball against an aggressive defense. Virginia, which rarely forces steals and turnovers, was a good matchup for the Jackets. Duke, which leads the conference in forcing turnovers, is not.

Boston College v. Clemson
The Ty Rice show continues for one more game, and barring injury, foul trouble, or blowout, he'll be out there for another 40 minutes. Rice has sat fewer than 40 combined minutes in 17 ACC games. Clemson is in the unfamiliar position of playing for seeding - they're very safely in the tournament (particularly with all the aforementioned losing going on around them), and could end up as high as a 5 if they win out. Beat BC, and they're looking at no worse than a 7.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

SOS and Tourney Preview

Let's start with strength of schedule. This year (unlike last year) I made a home-road adjustment. I split each team's games up into home games and road games, measured points and possessions for each, and based my adjustment off that. So, for example, only Wake's home games count toward Duke's strength of schedule, only Maryland's road games count toward UNC's strength of schedule, etc. For reference, here are the home/road numbers:

Home Efficiency Margin
UNC - 18.88
Duke - 18.27
Clemson - 13.47
Virginia Tech - 9.53
Wake Forest - 9.37
Boston College - 5.29
Miami - 4.51
Maryland - 3.16
Georgia Tech - 2.49
Virginia - -0.74
Florida State - -3.41
NC State - -4.68

Road Efficiency Margin
UNC - 9.79
Duke - 8.77
Clemson - -0.66
Georgia Tech - -4.32
Maryland - -5.56
Florida State - -6.76
Miami - -7.20
Virginia Tech - -7.75
Virginia - -9.82
Wake Forest - -15.60
Boston College - -19.22
NC State - -22.83

UNC and Duke clearly dominated the league - they were the only teams with positive margins on the road. Teams with notable home/road splits are Wake and BC (although both splits are influenced by BC's shellacking of Wake early in the year), and the most "road immune" team (in terms of difference between home margin and road margin) was, surprisingly, Georgia Tech.

So as I said, this year SOS was calculated using the site-based efficiency numbers above, rather than just the overall numbers. Here's what everyone's schedule looked like.

Offense (ranked from hardest opponent defense to easiest)
NC State - 103.18
North Carolina - 103.75
Virginia - 103.83
Miami - 103.87
Duke - 104.14
Boston College - 104.19
Maryland - 104.23
Georgia Tech - 104.41
Wake Forest - 104.88
Florida State - 104.99
Clemson - 105.02
Virginia Tech - 106.39

Defense (ranked from hardest opponent offense to easiest)
Virginia Tech - 105.87
Miami - 105.47
Georgia Tech - 105.13
Duke - 104.83
Florida State - 104.65
NC State - 104.38
Wake Forest - 103.97
Maryland - 103.91
Virginia - 103.82
Clemson - 103.49
North Carolina -103.66
Boston College - 103.49

Overall (using efficiency margin, ranked from hardest to easiest)
Miami - +1.59
NC State - +1.21
Georgia Tech - +0.72
Duke - +0.69
Virginia - -0.02
North Carolina - -0.09
Maryland - -0.32
Florida State - -0.34
Virginia Tech - -0.52
Boston College - -0.70
Wake Forest - -0.91
Clemson - -1.31

Miami had to play the 6 toughest road teams this season, and travel to 5 of the 6 toughest home courts. That makes for a tough conference schedule. Clemson, on the other hand, got to host 6 of the 7 weakest road teams and traveled to the 6 weakest road teams. Those two squads had almost polar opposite schedules, which could (in part) explain why one went 10-6 and the other 8-8. Overall, however, there's much less schedule-based adjustment in the standings this season than last season. The seeds tracked efficiency margin remarkably well - here's the unadjusted margin standings, with the ACCT seed in brackets:

UNC (1)
Duke (2)
Clemson (3)
Virginia Tech (4)
Georgia Tech (7)
Maryland (6)
Miami (5)
Wake Forest (8)
Florida State (9)
Virginia (10)
Boston College (11)
NC State (12)

When you factor in the adjustments, Miami leapfrogs all the way past Virginia Tech, and Virginia and FSU swap places. And that's it.

ACC Tournament

Here are the odds for each team progressing through the tournament. Not surprisingly, Duke and UNC are heavy favorites to make it to the finals, and nearly 90% of the scenarios feature one of the two teams winning. Their odds would be even closer, except that UNC has (by virtue of the 1 seed) a slightly easier path.

Quarters Semis Finals Win
1 North Carolina 100.00% 92.71% 80.53% 47.56%
2 Duke
100.00% 88.84% 71.28% 40.53%
3 Clemson 100.00% 74.71% 21.07% 6.62%
4 Virginia Tech 100.00% 55.03% 9.44% 1.99%
5 Miami
84.09% 42.41% 7.37% 1.58%
6 Maryland 68.97% 20.37% 3.13% 0.56%
7 Georgia Tech 66.29% 8.74% 3.49% 0.70%
8 Wake Forest 54.39% 4.26% 1.55% 0.21%
9 Florida State 45.61% 3.03% 0.99% 0.12%
10 Virginia
33.71% 2.42% 0.63% 0.08%
11 Boston College 31.03% 4.92% 0.40% 0.04%
12 NC State 15.91% 2.57% 0.12% 0.01%

These numbers reflect just how much the league properly sorted itself out this year. Georgia Tech is the only team (at the expense of Maryland) whose odds of winning are better than a higher seeded team.

Wake Forest-Florida State
Wake has taken both games from the Noles this year - the first by 17 in Winston-Salem, and the second by 8 at FSU. That latter win is Wake Forest's only road victory on the season. Without Isaiah Swann around, FSU will have trouble matching backcourts, and Chas MacFarland has played extremely well against the FSU front-court. Wake has shot 50% from beyond the arc against the Noles this season - Florida State will have to improve on that if they hope to spring the mild upset.

Miami-NC State
Miami was in the 5-12 game last year as well, but as the 12, rather than the 5. However, as with last season, the 12 seed won the only matchup between the two teams, as NC State held on for a 79-77 overtime victory at the RBC back in January. Miami was victimized in that game by extremely hot shooting from NCSU -11 of 18 from 3. The Canes are in a dangerous place - teams are desperately trying to play themselves off the bubble, and a frst-round loss to a last place NC State team would leave Miami at 8-9 in ACC play.

Georgia Tech-Virginia
Each team has taken a contest on the other's home court in thrilling fashion, with the Jackets needing overtime to win at the JPJ and Virginia knocking in a last-second shot to return the favor in the leak-free Thriller Dome. Although Georgia Tech is the higher seed, the two teams are trending in opposite directions. Georgia Tech has an e-margin of -5 over its last 8 games, while the Cavaliers post a positive 4.8 over their last seven (since Lars the Lithuanian returned). If Virginia could have maintained that over the whole season, it would place them 4th in conference play.

Maryland-Boston College

Way back when, these two teams opened the conference season with BC recording a win at Maryland (on the back of 25 more free throw attempts than the turtles). Maryland returned the favor (without the dramatic free throw advantage) back in February. The Terps hope they can get the rubber match and begin salvaging hope of an NCAA bid after dropping back-to-back contests to Clemson and Virginia (and losing 4 out of 5 on the whole). Maryland was able to neutralize Ty Rice in the last contest, holding him to just 13 points, his lowest output of the conference season. They'll have to try for similar results tomorrow.

For the sake of making myself look foolish, predictions: Wake Forest, Miami, Virginia, Boston College.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Player Awards

Second Annual OMACs - One Man's All Conference

First team, in reverse order:

5 - James Gist, Maryland. This was a very tough decision. I felt there were four very clear cut first-teamers, and about 8 guys who could be second-team. Finding a fifth for the first team was not an easy task. My hunch is, when the awards come out, Greivis Vasquez will hold this spot. But I simply couldn't give the award to a guy who, while doing a tremendous amount to help his team, also does so much to hurt it. Briefly, Vasquez made just 27% of his threes in conference play, but took over 40% of his shots from outside (and that's a lot of shots - he led the Terps in attempts). He also had the second-highest turnover rate of anyone in conference play. So that bumped him. So that left Gist. The Terps power forward averaged 17 and 8.5, posting 5 20+ point games and finishing 9th in block rate. He and Osby formed a fearsome duo down low who were extremely difficult to score on - opponents shot just 45% from 2 on the season. And he did far, far less to hurt the team than Vasquez. It's not a ringing endorsement - and this is not to sell Gist short, because he had a superb season - but as I said, there were only 4 clear first-teamers to me. So congrats James - best of the rest gets you a first-team spot in my books.

4 - DeMarcus Nelson, Duke. Nelson was the rock for the Devils on the season, shouldering the scoring load, drawing the opponents' best perimeter player on defense, and grabbing more boards than any other guard in the ACC. Nelson showed substantial growth this season, improving on passing out of the drive and finishing inside when he did decide to go all the way to the hoop. He had the best EFG% of any regular Blue Devil (.573, good for top 5 in the conference), and was the unquestioned leader on the court. Nelson's signature game this year came at Maryland, where he scored 27 points, picked up 7 boards, and 4 assists as he helped Duke storm back from a halftime deficit to pick up the road win.

2a and 2b - Sean Singletary, Virginia; Tyrese Rice, Boston College. Rice and Singletary are essentially the same player - high scoring point guards playing with sub-par teammates who were dangerous enough to keep their teams in most games, but not quite superb enough to carry them over the top. Rice scored a few more points, but the assist and turnover numbers were essentially equal, as was their shooting percentages and their ability to get to the line. They were 1 and 2 in percentage of team scoring in the conference on the season. If pressed, I would give the edge to Singletary - I think his supporting cast was worse and I think he does just a little more to make his teammates better. For Rice, the signature game was his 46-pointer against UNC, during which he hit 8 threes and scored 34 points in the first half. It was the highest scoring game of any player in conference this season. Singletary's shining moment came at Miami, where he dropped 41 on the Canes, plus 9 rebounds and no turnovers. Of course, their respective teams lost both games.

1 - Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina. Hansbrough was the heavy favorite for this award at the start of the conference season, but struggled a bit out of the gate. He shot better than 50% from the field only once in the first 7 games, and his 20/game over that stretch was not extraordinarily efficient. But Psycho T locked up the award for good during Ty Lawson's absence - 6 games, averaging a 29 and 10.7 double double, and carrying the Heels to 5 wins out of 6, including great escapes against Clemson and at Virginia. He's the most difficult post presence in the country to deal with, because he's mastered the completely awkward and off-balance shot, he has terrificly soft touch, he grabs lots of rebounds, and he shoots free throws very well. The signature game was the double-OT home win over Clemson - he went for 39 and 13 and shot 12 more free throws than the entire Clemson team. He was the most dominant player in the conference, and the biggest reason why Carolina's offense didn't miss a beat with Lawson out.

Second Team - normal order

6) Greivis Vasquez - yes, he's a terrible outside shooter and a turnover machine. But he's a dangerous play-maker and a fierce competitor who averaged 17.6, 7 assists and 6 rebounds on the season. He also finished second in conference in minutes played.

7) Kyle Singler, Duke - Singler was the most versatile Devil, who could score inside, outside, off the dribble, off the pick and pop, and even with the occasional sky-hook. He often had to guard the opponents' center (despite never matching up in size), and easily took more cuts and scars than anyone else on the team.

8) Jack McClinton, Miami - McClinton was again the best player on a surprising Miami team, and this year he was even a more efficient scorer. Jack finished 4th in percentage of points scored, and was Miami's best outside shooter. Plus he hit 91.8% of his free throws, making him a hugely valuable asset on the court at the end of games.

9) Cliff Hammonds, Clemson - KC Rivers shouldered more of the scoring load, but Hammonds was the glue holding this team together. He played more minutes than any other Tiger, and was the team's most efficient scorer, shooting over 60% from 2. Add in a healthy assist rate (20.6%) and a relatively low turnover rate (3.3%), and Hammonds brought consistency to Clemson.

10) Greg Paulus, Duke - I will be accused of blatant homerism for this, and so be it, but I think Paulus was one of the 10 most valuable players in conference this season. He hit countless big threes, leading the team at 41.7% from outside, and was always willing to take a shot in a pressure situation. But equally important, his defense and ball-handling, while not all-world, were vastly improved. He had a very low turnover % and the third best A/TO in conference, and also finished 4th in steal rate.

Third Team

11) James Johnson, Wake Forest
12) AD Vassallo, Virginia Tech
13) Wayne Ellington, UNC
14) Toney Douglas, Florida State
15) KC Rivers, Clemson

Honorable Mention - in no particular order

Jeff Teague, Wake Forest; Jeff Allen, Virginia Tech; JJ Hickson, NC State; Courtney Fells, NC State; Danny Green, UNC; Trevor Booker, Clemson; Jon Scheyer, Duke; Jason Rich, Florida State; James Dews, Miami; Gerald Henderson, Duke

All-Rookie Team

1) Kyle Singler, Duke
2) James Johnson, Wake Forest
3) Jeff Teague, Wake Forest
4) Jeff Allen, Virginia Tech
5) JJ Hickson, NC State

Honorable Mention: Terrence Oglesby, Clemson; Landon Milbourne, Maryland; Rakim Sanders, Boston College

A Brief Eulogy

This has absolutely nothing to do with basketball, but it's my site, and I'll do what I want with it.

My grandmother, Franca Capozza Rugani (my Nonna), died today at just over 90 years and 7 months. She had been in the hospital for a little over a month, and had stage 4 cancer of an unidentified variety (by the time it had diagnosed, it had spread sufficiently that the doctors were unsure of the original source), so the end of her life was expected. I was able to go to San Jose during the first weekend of March to see her one last time and say goodbye, and have had plenty of times to come to terms with the fact that she would not be with us much longer. But the profound sense of loss is no easier to stomach.

My Nonna was a remarkable woman. She followed love halfway around the world, leaving her native Italy in 1947 to follow her (handsome) Italian-American husband - a US soldier in WWII - to California. She spoke no English, had no local relatives, and never bothered to learn how to drive. But she thrived in her new country, raised three children while working in a school cafeteria, learned English by playing scrabble and doing crosswords (among other things). Her children all went to college and graduate school, the first generation in the family so highly educated. All the while, my grandparents stayed in the same home, with little change. She lived in that house for 51 years, 7 on her own after my grandfather passed. The plates and glasses are all from the 60s. The upholstery was from the 70s until it changed just 2 years ago. The roses in the garden and the wisteria on the wall were annual features.

And she collected family. She opened her home to a young woman in community college in the 70s who was estranged from her own family. That woman has been a member of our family ever since. She became a mother to my own mom, who had lost both her parents by the time she was 16. My mom has said several times that she married my dad as much for Nonna as for him. She accepted diversity within our family - I have three adopted cousins, one Native American and Vietnamese (I think), and two Chinese. For countless neighbors, my grandmother's home served as a place of open doors, where one could always count on a willing ear (and a great Italian dinner). We had her 90th birthday party last August, and well over 100 people turned out, from all periods of my grandmother's life. Her friendships were strong and enduring.

By the time I went to college, my grandmother was too old to travel. She never met my classmates in college and law school, never met any girlfriends I had after high school, and I have always felt disappointed by that, because I knew that - although they'd never know it - their lives would have been richer simply by knowing her. She was a woman who took people at face value, who understood your flaws and accepted you nonetheless, who could vehemently disagree with your opinion while loving you all the same, and not letting the former affect the latter. And yet, although they've never spoken with her, anyone who has met me has also, in a way, met her. So much of who I am and who I want to be comes from Franca Rugani. The way she lived was a lesson and a model, and if I can follow even half of her lead, I can be proud of who I am as a person.

When my mom called this morning to tell me that Nonna had passed, my initial comment was "poor Nonna." And as we talked, and realized that she went peacefully - in her sleep and in her own home, with her three children in the house - and that she saw her family and many of her friends whom she dearly loved over the last few weeks of her life, we agreed that "poor Nonna" was not correct. She had a full and beautiful life, and about as good of an end as any of us could wish for. She's now on her way to meet up with my grandfather again after these 7 years apart. It is those of us left to go on without her who feel the loss. Poor us.

Nonna, I love you, and I will miss you greatly.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Team Performance Awards

Welcome back to the Blue Devil Hoops Award Season. We'll start with teams, and then cover players tomorrow. Team "awards" are broken into two categories - single-game performance and deviant season performance. All awards are based on conference games only.

Best Single Game Performances

Offensive Rating: Boston College against Wake Forest - 146.60. The Eagles had an astounding day from the field, shooting .771 efg% and 1.591 PPWS. Boston College went 26-40 from 2, 13-19 from 3, and even chipped in 21-24 from the line on the way to 112 points in 76 possessions. Surprisingly, BC had the second-worst offensive performance on the season, scoring just 48 points in 70 possessions against Virginia Tech. So that's 64 more points in just 6 more possessions between these two games.

Defensive Rating: North Carolina against Virginia Tech - 66.00. The Hokies missed 40 of 54 shots, and Carolina gathered up over 80% of Tech's misses and forced turnovers on 25% of possessions. It was a game that could have broken their season, but they promptly went on a four-game winning streak before losing a heartbreaker to Clemson.

Best - Boston College against Wake Forest - 1.591. See above.
Worst - Clemson at Florida State - 0.724. Clemson shot an awful 3 for 27 from 3 (and a typically poor 12 for 23 from the line) on its way to a 64-55 loss.

Best - BC, again - 0.771.
Worst - Virginia Tech against UNC - 0.296.

Free Throw Rate
Best - Virginia Tech against Florida State - 95.92. The Hokies shot 47 free throws against 49 field goals on their way to an 89-80 win.
Worst - Clemson at UNC - 7.87. Clemson shot just 7 free throws against 89 field goal attempts, and they made just 1 of those. UNC's double-OT comeback at home was fueled by never giving the Tigers freebies.

Offensive - Clemson against Boston College - 60.00. The Tigers gathered up 21 of the 35 chances on their own end of the court, turning an average shooting day into a 132.77 offensive rating and picking up a 22 point win.
Defensive - Florida State at NC State - 87.50. FSU gathered 21 of the Pack's 24 misses. It's not surprising NC State is the victim here, as they were the worst offensive rebounding team in the conference. The Noles used the control of the defensive glass to propel themselves to a 72-62 victory.

Assist Rate
Best - Virginia Tech at UNC - 78.57. Just goes to show you that a high assist rate is not really indicative of good offense. The Hokies made only 14 buckets, and 11 came off of assists.
Worst - Georgia Tech at Duke - 13.04. Georgia Tech recorded only 3 assists on their 23 made field goals on their way to a 71-58 loss.

Turnover Rate
Best - Duke against Boston College - 8.26. Duke had the lowest turnover percentage in the conference this season, and this game helped, as the Devils coughed up just 6 turnovers in 72 possessions on the way to a 90-80 win.
Worst - NC State at Clemson - 36.02. NC State had the highest turnover percentage in the conference this season, and this game helped (hurt?), as the Pack coughed up 23 turnovers in just 64 possessions on the way to a 70-54 loss.

Steal Rate
Best - Virginia against NC State - 22.05. The Cavaliers took advantage of NC State coming to Charlottesville and racked up 16 steals in 72 Pack possessions on the way to a 78-60 victory.
Worst - Boston College against Virginia - 1.43. The Eagles recorded just 1 steal and got blown out at Virginia, 84-66.

Block Rate
Best - UNC against Duke - 19.74. The Heels blocked 15 of Duke's attempts in the season's final game, helping the Heels to a 76-68 win and a regular season first-place finish.
Worst - Virginia against Boston College - 0.00. No steals by one team, no blocks by the other. There were actually 8 zero block games on the season, 4 of which were by Virginia. Can you say, no inside presence?

Here, we look at which teams had areas in which they really stood out (either for good or bad) as compared to the rest of the conference. I use standard deviation as the measure for determining excellence (or futility).

North Carolina Offensive Rating - 2.02 better than the mean. Carolina's offense ran on all cylinders all season, and out-paced the average by about a point every 11 possessions.

Duke Two Point Scoring Rate - 2.04 lower than the mean. Duke got a substantially smaller portion of its points from 2 than anyone else in the league, picking up just 44.63% of the offense from inside the arc.

NC State Opponent Assist Rate - 2.06 better than the mean. Again, assists and offensive performance are not correlated at all. The Pack were standouts in denying assists, and were dead last in defense.

Virginia Tech Defensive Rebounding - 2.08 better than the mean. The Hokies cleaned up on the glass, and were even more proficient than even the Tar Heels in cleaning up opponents' misses.

Virginia Tech 3FG% - 2.15 worst than the mean. The Hokies shot just 29.7% from 3, contributing to the league's worst offense.

Virginia Tech Free Throw Rate - 2.21 better than the mean. The Hokies rely heavily on scoring from the line, shooting almost one free throw for every two field goal attempts, and getting over 1/4 of their points at the line. The fact that the Hokies have multiple deviant performances shows just how unique a team this is. The other evidence of this - they paired the worst offense in the conference with the best defense in the conference. Lots of free throws, lots of missed threes, and lots of defensive rebounds - it's Hokie basketball!

Virginia Block Rate - 2.26 worse than the mean. As noted above, the Cavaliers had four full games without recording a block, and didn't have big numbers in any of their games. By the way, opponents shot .537 efg% against Virginia - that's the worst field goal defense in conference.

Clemson Free Throw Scoring Rate - 2.34 lower than the mean.
Clemson didn't go to the line a lot (12th in conference in free throw rate) and didn't score well when they got there (58.6%). Those two combined to give the Tigers substantially less scoring from the line than any other conference team. (If this looks familiar, it's exactly the same entry as last year - only the numbers were changed to reflect this particular season's free throw futility.

And the winner for the most deviant performance is ...

Duke Opponent Two Point Scoring Rate: 2.35 greater than the mean. The Devils insist that teams beat them from 2. 62.5% of opponents' scoring game from inside the arc. Duke made 452 field goals. Their opponents made 444. That's not a big discrepancy. But they outscored opponents 1057-960 from the field. Duke pushing opponents inside the arc (and the Devils own desire to shoot from 3) turned an 8 field goal difference into a 97 point (6/game) advantage. Forcing teams inside, inside, inside is smart strategy.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Another Regular Season in the Books

Sometimes, you just run out of gas. For the first time all season, Duke looked really, really tired on the court. And it showed, with some misses on wide open shots (Singler's 3, Henderson's layunk). They couldn't convert on the offensive end down the stretch (although the defense in the last 5 minutes was, in fact, still solid, despite the 10-0 finish by UNC), and after making a heck of a run to get the lead back, couldn't close the deal.

Of course, they put themselves in a position to be exhausted by playing the first half over-amped and out of control, both wasting energy and falling way behind. Shots weren't falling, there were too many turnovers, and Carolina scored a little easily. But in the second half, all that energy turned out positive results, as Duke slowly but surely clawed its way back into the game. That second half was just exceptional - the constant back and forth, the ridiculous effort on both sides of the ball by both teams - heck, I was exhausted and I was just in my living room. I haven't been able to watch as much hoop this season as I would prefer, but I firmly believe that those 20 minutes was the best half of basketball I've watched all season. The two teams on that court are 100% legit final four contenders.

As for the rest of the conference, the regular season unfortunately went out with a bit of a whimper. All three bubble teams dropped games on the road - Miami and Virginia Tech at least looked decent, but Maryland is suddenly playing like they were when they lost to BC, American, and Ohio. Now none are completely safe, and they're entering probably the most up-for-grabs first days since expansion. Nightmare scenario for the conference is still out there - Sidney Lowe red-coats past Miami and Virginia Tech and BC drops Maryland. All of a sudden there's a realistic 3-bid possibility (I still think Miami would make it, but ugh, talk about sweating). And mid-major bubblers have been dropping as well - VCU loses to William & Mary, and I'm watching San Diego try to take out St Mary's in OT, which means some smaller conferences could be looking at more than 1 bid.

So now there are the possible spoilers. NC State, which had such a disappointing season, could possibly spoil the post-season hopes of not one but two foes. State played each team just once this year, both at the RBC, and both were Pack victories. As much as they've struggled, the talent is still there, and it wouldn't shock me to see them knock off both Miami and Virginia Tech. BC seems less likely to score the win - they've lost 12 of 13 down the stretch, and their win over the Terps came alllll the way back in December. Then again, I never thought Miami would beat Maryland in round 1 last year either.

Of course, if Maryland wins, its work still isn't done. Their resume outside the UNC win is god-awful (worse than Virginia Tech's). The Terps would need to beat a Clemson team that they just couldn't put away last weekend. And even then I'm not sure they could be 100% comfortable. Just one week ago, it looked like the league had a great shot of getting at least 5 and maybe 6 bids. Now? Maybe not.

I'll be running season awards on Monday and Tuesday, and an ACC-Tourney preview on Wednesday. All posts will be late late on the East Coast - I'm coming to you live from Juneau, AK during the week.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Duke 86, Virginia 70

Some nights, you're simply the better team. Virginia had a good offensive gameplan, with Singletary attacking the middle and dishing off for secondary drives, and Baker and Diane were told to use the mid-range jumper and floaters and not go all the way to the hoop. It was looking sharp, and Virginia was hitting its shots, and had a 26-22 lead. Shortly thereafter, Duke went into the zone, and the game was effectively over. The Cavaliers simply had no idea what to do against a team with Duke on its jerseys playing defense like Syracuse. The ball stopped going inside, the shots stopped falling, and the Devils pulled away. Once Duke reached a double digit lead, it never got closer than 9 for the rest of the game.

On offense, Gerald Henderson had his best game in a long while. It wasn't as much the 19 points, or the alley oops (although those were fun), as it was Henderson's decision-making on the drive. He has a tendency to be a little bit of a black hole on offense - the ball goes to him and it doesn't come back out. Last night, however, he repeatedly drove from the wing into the middle of the lane, drew defense, and dished it off to an open shooter. The stat line lists him with 4 assists, and he would have had more but for some off shooting from Singler. On the whole, it was a solid offensive performance from Duke - the Devils shot well and spread the scoring around, with 5 guys in double figures. Only Singler struggled, but he never lost confidence in his shot (if anything, he seemed a little more determined to shoot himself out of the slump). Zoubek continues to impress on his return, picking up a nice dish to Henderson and grabbing several rebounds in traffic. His size (and his 5 fouls) should come in handy against Hansbrough on Saturday.

Speaking of Saturday, both Duke and UNC handled their "warm-ups" rather comfortably, and meet Saturday for a chance to win the regular season outright. For the Devils, it will be senior night for DeMarcus Nelson. He wore number 21 as well for Duke as his predecessor in that jersey, Chris Duhon, and his career has followed the same path - from role-player on top flight teams his freshman and sophomore years to a lone senior leader of a young, talented (and potential final four) team. Memo to Elliott Williams - when you show up on campus next fall, ask for #21 - it's been very, very good to Duke.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Virginia Preview

Over the first 9 games of the conference season, Virginia went 1-8, and was outscored by a total of 81 points. They lost by 16 at Wake Forest, by 22 at Duke, and, worst of all, by 31 at home to Clemson. In the 5 game since, the 'Hoos are 3-2 and +22 in the scoring column (rough estimate of about +6.5 in efficiency margin). While there's obviously more going on than just one addition, it is notable that Laurynas Mikalauskas, who had missed the first 9 games of the conference season, returned to the squad for the most recent 5 game stretch of quality basketball. Mikalauskas has played the best basketball of his career over this stretch, including 15 and 7 against Georgia Tech and 16 and 13 against Miami.

All in all, Virginia has played its most recent five games the way people expected them to play over the course of the season. The opponent Duke travels to the JPJ to face this evening is not the same team that was blown out in Cameron to open ACC play. The biggest turnaround has been on the offensive side of the ball - Virginia averaged 69 points per game over the first 9, and 80/game over the past 5. They'll look to continue the offensive resurgence against a Duke defense that has been less than stingy at several points during conference play.

Back in January, Duke won by shutting down the role players. Cavaliers not named Sean Singletary shot just 40% from the field, including just 20% from 3. The Devils also forced lots of turnovers (19) and shot well inside (63.9% from 2) on a night when the outside shots were not quite as proficient (35.5%). Virginia has been a lot better at taking care of the ball recently - under 10 turnovers a game during the last 5. Duke will look to reverse that trend and pick up easy points in transition.

A close game against Virginia is always dangerous, because Sean Singletary does things that normal human beings are incapable of, particularly in the last couple minutes of games. His game-winning shot last season against Duke was just remarkable - a flat on his back in mid-air teardrop jumper over McRoberts' outstretched arms. Virginia will look to recapture some of that magic tonight to spring the upset.

Around the ACC

Virginia Tech laid a whipping on Wake last night. If they can find a way to win at Clemson this weekend, the Hokies will be the third place team in conference, and almost certainly assured of an NCAA bid. They've done an excellent job resurrecting their season since being left for dead after losing to UNC by 39. Then again, having the easiest schedule in the conference helps those efforts.

Speaking of UNC, the Tar Heels won their warmup for the weekend, beating FSU 90-77 and firmly ending any discussion of FSU sneaking into the at large picture. With their losses, the Noles and Deacs join Virginia, Georgia Tech, NCSU, and Boston College as teams who need to win the ACC tournament to see NCAA action. As for Carolina, their two seniors (QT and Surry Wood) were perfect from the floor on senior night, and Hansbrough was a rebound shy of his umpteenth "triple-double" (points, rebounds, free throw attempts). For the Noles, Toney Douglas never wants to see baby blue again - 6 for 32 from the field in two games against UNC. In two games against Carolina, FSU shot 12 of 55 from 3 - not exactly a recipe for an upset.

Monday, March 03, 2008


It will not go down in history as a vintage Duke win. It got a collective "phew!" out of Duke fans everywhere (as well as a few, "wait, how exactly did we win that game" reactions). But at the end of the day, it's counts the same as the previous 799, and sticks Coach K in rarified company for wins at the college level.

As for this year's version of the Devils, there have to be some concerns about the defense. Sidney Lowe drew up an excellent offensive gameplan, keeping the floor well-spaced so that Duke was always a step late bringing help. NCSU used good ball rotation to get wide-open looks and, to their credit, they largely hit them. It was a hot shooting day all around - both teams were lights out from the line, and both were lights out from beyond the arc. Only Duke's struggles in the lane kept both teams from shooting over 50%.

Of course, while Lowe gets credit for the offensive game-plan, he has to get some questions about his game management in the last minute. The Pack turned it over with 40 seconds left in the game, trailing by 1. Lowe chose not to foul to try to extend the game. He chose not to employ a pressure defense or double teams that could force either a turnover or a quicker shot by Duke. Instead, he had his team back off, and let Nelson just dribble time off the clock. While Duke didn't exactly get a good look, they used up 90% of the remaining game time, leaving NCSU with a desperation heave to try to win. 40 seconds is a lot of time at the end of a basketball game, and Coach Lowe decided he was only interested in getting about 4 seconds of it. A curious decision to say the least.

For the Pack, defense reared its ugly head again. They got a lot of credit for the 2-3 matchup, but they still gave up 1.18 points per possession to Duke. If the Devils could have finished a little stronger in the lane, that number likely would have been higher. And from the 5 minute mark, when the Pack last held an 8 point lead, Duke scored 14 points in just 8 possessions.

Duke heads to Virginia this week, to meet a Cavalier squad that has been playing much better since the return of Laurynas Mikalauskas (2-2 since his return, with the two losses coming by 1 to UNC and by 2 to Miami). First for UVA, however, is the makeup of the rainout game with Georgia Tech (yes, I said rainout in reference to basketball).

Around the ACC

UNC faced a similar situation to the Devils on Saturday. A hot shooting opponent jumped out to a big lead, only to fall victim to a second half comeback. Ty Rice had 46 all by his lonesome, including a ridiculous 34! in the first half, and the Eagles led by as many as 18. But they fell cold over a long stretch when the Heels got hot, and UNC put up nearly a 30 point swing in the second half, winning by 10. The Heels get a suddenly resurgent Florida State team at home for QT's senior day.

Miami barely held on over UVA to get to 7-7 in conference. A win over BC on Wednesday assures them of a .500 conference record and (with wins over Mississippi State, VCU, Duke, and Clemson) virtually locks up a bid. Wake was not so lucky. Needing a road win over Georgia Tech, the Deacs came out flat, and now their NCAA chances have gone up in smoke, barring a run to at least the ACCT finals.

Sunday finished out a weekend of road comebacks for the league's top 3 teams as Clemson stormed back late to steal one over Maryland. The Terps led by 13 with 4:48 to play. They were outscored 18-2 the rest of the way. Over that span, the offense missed 5 of 6 from the field, their only attempt from the line, and turned it over three times. Clemson got it all back on twos until the Oglesby three with just seconds remaining. The win moved Clemson into complete lock status, and made the Terps uneasy. They have just a road game left at Virginia (on Singeltary's senior night, so uh oh) and they'll be an uninspiring 18-13, 8-8 if they drop that one. I think Maryland needs 2-3 more wins, and since there's only one regular season game left, that means they'll need to do their damage in the ACCT.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Quick Saturday Preview

Playing teams on the road on Senior Day is always a recipe for possible upset. The fans are excited, the players are a little extra motivated, and emotions are generally running high. For the Pack, Gavin Grant's last game at the RBC gives him a chance to go out with a "remember when" game - as in, remember when Gavin Grant beat Duke in his last home game?

NC State gave the Devils a good run for a half at Cameron. Then the problem of the season reared its ugly head - total lack of effort, care, etc. on the defensive end. Duke's second half was as efficient a half as any team has had in conference play this year, and NC State went home with another loss. For NC State to win this afternoon, they absolutely need to play 40 minutes of defense.

Around the ACC

Two absolute must-wins - Wake at Georgia Tech and Miami at home against Virginia. The latter is more likely to happen (it's a must win only in the sense that this is the wrong time of year to be losing at home to a team like Virginia). The former is Wake Forest's only chance of staying in the at-large picture. Oh, and UNC plays at BC - should be a yawner.