Saturday, February 28, 2009

Meet the Hokies

And, at long last, we come to the end of this 11-part series. I was traveling for the first game, so I didn't get to introduce everyone to Virginia Tech before (although I have previously wondered what to make of them). In that post, I wondered whether the Hokies' strong offensive performance was sustainable. There's been some drop off since then, but the answer is largely yes. The Hokies still don't turn the ball over and still shoot pretty well. Plus, they've accomplished this against the toughest schedule of opponent defenses in the league this year.

Once again, their point/wing/post trio of Delaney, Vassallo, and Allen carry the team. They've scored 697 of the team's 961 points (72.5%) and have largely done so in an efficient manner. Malcolm Delaney is probably having the best season you don't hear too much about - he's averaging over 21 points a game, consistently using 25% or more of the team's possessions, and producing a 117.34 offensive rating. Delaney is a penetrating guard who lives at the free throw line (100 FTAs in ACC play) and shoots well from everywhere on the court (.464/.419/.840). His numbers compare very favorably to the other guards tossed around for all-ACC - Douglas, McClinton, Henderson, Lawson - and yet you don't hear his name in the conversation as much. If he can lead his team to an upset over Duke or UNC in the next couple of games, you might.

AD Vassallo has had a very solid, if unspectacular, senior year. He's accepted a second banana role to Delaney, and has rejiggered his game just a bit, focusing inside more often than outside, and to good effect, as he's hitting 55% of his 2s against just 35% of his 3s. He's still a dangerous shooter who can get hot at any moment, and he loves taking clutch shots down the stretch.

Allen has been the least efficient of the three, struggling with turnovers, poor free throw shooting, and less than ideal field goal percentage from a big man inside. He's also struggled with his attitude at times - court misconduct has earned him suspensions in each of the last two seasons, and opponents can clearly get into his head. Still, he's a versatile big man who can score back-to-the-basket, facing up, and on the perimeter. He's also a strong rebounder - the best the Hokies have at either end. Allen's usage numbers have been too high for his performance - he uses the highest share of anyone on the team, but has an offensive rating stuck around 100. In raw terms, Vassallo has used only 13 more possessions (in many more minutes), but produced 47 more points.

The trouble for the Hokies this year has been finding help outside the big three. Except Cheick Diakite and Lewis Witcher (both of whom rely largely on put-backs for their points), all the other Hokies have poor offensive ratings, and no one has contributed as many as 5 points per game. JT Thompson has been unable to recapture his strong performance from the end of last season, hitting double figures only twice in conference play (and doing so inefficiently, with offensive ratings of 91.5 and 80 in those games). He's also been victimized by a turnover bug, which will quickly limit your playing time on a Seth Greenberg team. Victor Davila showed some promise early, but his numbers have dwindled of late. Aside from Clemson (where he's averaged 20.5 minutes in the two games), he's played just 45 minutes over 7 games, and scored just 2 points. He has size, but hasn't yet translated it into strong rebounding, shot blocking, or efficient scoring. Hank Thorns takes over a lot of the point play when he's in the game, and has racked up strong assist numbers by feeding the ball to the big three - he assists nearly 30% of his teammates hoops, good for 4th in the conference. He's not at all a shooting threat, though, posting a .365 efg%, comfortably the worst on the team. Dorenzo Hudson and Terrell Bell get limited minutes to round out the rotation, and both struggle putting the ball in the hoop - .415 efg% for Hudson, .420 for Bell.

As a team, the Hokies stand out in just two areas - avoiding turnovers, and getting to the line. This is the second year running that VT has led the conference in free throw rate, and they're traditionally stingy giving the ball away. One problem they've had, though, is that they don't convert from the stripe - only 67.4% as a team in conference, and aside from Delaney and Vassallo, no one is above 60%.

The Hokies are playing for their tournament lives, needing a statement win over Duke or UNC to bolster a largely unimpressive resume. They're also looking to redeem themselves from the 44 point stink-bomb they dropped in Cameron to open conference play. Cassell will be rocking and rowdy, as it always is when Duke comes to town. Today's game, I think, should look a lot like Wednesday's - tight throughout, high energy, generally strong levels of execution, and (hopefully) a late Duke pullaway for the win.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Duke 78, Maryland 67

That was one heck of a basketball game. 56 possessions in, the score was tied at 60, and neither team had led by more than 4. Over the game's last 12 possessions, Duke outscored the Terps 18-7, hitting some crucial shots (such as the one three from Scheyer on a 1-7 night), and picking up key stops. That was a challenging game in a hostile environment and the Devils never lost their intensity or their cool. In contrast to the games at BC and Clemson, Duke really looked like they came to play from the opening tip.

The Scheyer-Williams backcourt combo has continued to pay dividends on the offensive end. Jon handles the ball very intelligently, and has committed only two turnovers in the last three games at the point. In the three minutes he sat against Maryland, Duke didn't score a point and was outscored 6-0. For his part, Elliot Williams continues to do what he needs to do. He had some nice drives, grabbed some crucial rebounds, and harassed Maryland's guards on defense. Gary Williams gave clear instructions to leave him completely alone on the perimeter - Grievis Vasquez (when he wasn't committing idiotic fouls) "guarded" Williams by standing in the middle of the key ready to cut off any of the other Devils on the drive. Elliot responded with 6-8 from the field, including 1-2 from downtown. It will be interesting to see whether teams continue to show him the same lack of respect on offense, and whether he can exploit that.

As well as those two played, Gerald Henderson simply shined. He and Williams, in their own ways, illustrate the light bulb principle - for some guys, at some times, the light bulb just goes off, and after that they're different players. At some point over the holiday season, the light bulb went off in Henderson's head and he realized that in pretty much any game, he was going to be the best player on the court. Since then, he's acted like it. There were several moments in last night's game that exemplified that - the insanely vicious dunk off the in-bounds play shortly after Nolan went out was one, but my favorite came about a minute later. He blocked Cliff Tucker on a breakaway layup, recovered the ball, and got it to Paulus. As Henderson crossed the halfcourt line (without the ball) he started directing the offense, and I immediately knew he was going to a) get the ball on the left wing and b) score. Sure enough, he got the clear out he wanted, got the ball on the left wing, drove to the free throw line, and nailed a jumper over Tucker. Gerald falls in love with his jumper at times, and still lacks handle going left, but my goodness has he elevated his game. The scary thing is, there's a lot of room for growth left.

Here's the HD Box for Duke:

Also, as a bonus, the +/- for Maryland. Vasquez's numbers are, I think, misleading. He sat for 14 minutes during the second half. During the first 11 that he sat, the team was even with Duke. It was only during the last three minutes that Duke went on its run, outscoring the Terps by 11 at the finish. Also, it should be noted that for the first 8-2 of that run, Vasquez was getting subbed offense for defense, which skews the numbers a touch. Nonetheless, he was the only Terp with a positive +/- on the day.

off def +/- off def +/- off def +/-
Vasquez 32 29 3 7 7 0 39 36 3
Kim 0 0 0 0 2 -2 0 2 -2
Gregory 12 10 2 13 17 -4 25 27 -2
Tucker 14 12 2 19 24 -5 33 36 -3
Neal 26 24 2 20 27 -7 46 51 -5
Hayes 18 19 -1 29 36 -7 47 55 -8
Bowie 16 15 1 29 42 -13 45 57 -12
Mosley 22 27 -5 15 23 -8 37 50 -13
Milbourne 30 34 -4 33 42 -9 63 76 -13

170 170 0 165 220 -55 335 390 -55

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Maryland Preview

It's really amazing what one win can do for your season. It gives the players confidence, calms the fans down, and suddenly makes the tournament prospects look rosier. And no, I'm not talking about Duke's performance on Sunday night.

To say that Maryland has had a tumultuous season would be an understatement. The coach and the athletic department have been fighting. The team has been struggling. The players have been whining about playing time and roles. And they haven't been included in tournament talk since getting housed by Gonzaga and Georgetown in back-to-back games in November. As recently as mid-week last week, they were heading discontentedly along to the NIT, getting crushed by 29 at Clemson. And then, all of a sudden, a Saturday afternoon in late February turned everything around.

Maryland played, without question, its best game of the season when it knocked off UNC 88-85. It was the only time all season that Maryland hit double digit threes. It was the only time all season Maryland got double digit blocks. Carolina recorded the fewest assists of any ACC opponent, and hit the fewest threes of any ACC opponent. They took down a team that was unquestionably better team, and all of a sudden, they're 17-9, 6-6 in the ACC, and back on the bubble, and have an always emotional home game against Duke that could give them a third signature win (after MSU and UNC).

Every rational part of me says that this is the same Maryland team that struggled so much early in conference play. Their offense and defense are still wildly inconsistent. Even after a dominating performance against Carolina, Greivis Vasquez has had a subpar season, with an offensive rating well under 100. Only Landon Milbourne has been a reliably efficient performer - everyone else goes hot and cold. They're still small inside (they got killed on the boards by UNC), they still can't shoot (12th in the ACC), and they still have difficulty preventing teams from putting the ball in the hoop (12th in the ACC in efg% against).

Nonetheless, Maryland has a tendency to play differently when UNC and Duke come to town, and the team and fans are giong to be really up for this game. Duke will need to play well to win, and if it stays close late, anything can happen.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Duke 101, Wake Forest 91

Apologies that it's been a while (work, travel, etc.), but what a game to return to. Duke and Wake put on an offensive display in the second half unlike any seen in the conference thus far. It was a relatively slow half - 33 possessions for Duke and 34 possessions for Wake - that was very high scoring - 50 for Duke and 51 for Wake. That's 101 collective points in just 67 possessions, a combined 150.75 offensive rating for the half. Duke got just 10 stops all half, and Wake just 9. The Deacs scored on 19 of the first 22 second half possessions, almost always from penetration by Smith, Teague, or Johnson (with the occasional offensive rebound thrown in for kicks). Thankfully, Henderson and Scheyer were just as good (and better, really), and Duke didn't suffer any offensive let down, converting on 20 of the first 27 possessions and 24 of 33 overall in the second half (and two of the "failed" possessions were missed front ends). There may not have been a lot of defense, but my goodness it was fun to watch.

It's hard to imagine, watching him play now, that before 2009 started, Henderson was averaging just 12 points a game and had 4 games in single digits (including only 2! against Purdue). Only twice had he used over 24% of Duke's possessions, seemingly reluctant to play like a superstar. Since 2009, however, he's been a completely different player. He's been the focal point of the offense, never using fewer than 24% of possessions in 2009 and 5 times going over 30%. He's averaged 19.7 points a game in 2009 and over 20 in ACC play, posting a 116.23 offensive rating while using 28.73% of Duke's possessions. Last night was his signature game. He hit from everywhere on the floor, attacking the rim for ferocious dunks, backing down smaller players for turnarounds, hitting pull-ups from all spots, and capping it all off with an absolutely ridiculous (and backbreaking) 3.

As for the lineup change, Jon Scheyer has played 74 minutes at point guard with just one turnover. He played an extremely steady game at point, and showed how dangerous he can be when he has his shot. Another positive is how much he's started to attack - after just 27 free throw attempts in his previous 8 games, he's had 25 in his last 2, and scored 19 points at the line. And Elliot Williams has acquitted himself nicely. His game still lacks polish, and he still goes way too fast for his own good (witness his foot shuffling when he's standing with the ball on the perimeter), but he's been a very valuable asset on the perimeter, if only as a high energy shot in the arm. He's looked more confident and more aggressive. For those who say you need game minutes to develop, Elliot is a bit of a counterexample - he had played 63 minutes over the past 12 games, and didn't look particularly good in any of those minutes, and then has played 63 in the last two and looked like a legit ACC player.

Finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the play of Lance Thomas. He's averaging 8.25 points and 3.5 offensive rebounds over the last four games, shooting 15 of 21 and committing just 4 turnovers. He gathered some key offensive boards, and frustrated penetration by Teague and Smith toward the end of the game. I still think that the defense is weaker with him on the court (the stats bear me out, as our defense gives up just about a point per possession with Thomas in, which is the worst of anyone on the team), but like Williams, he's provided energy and spark to a team that too often in February has looked flat.

Here's the HD Box from last night:

As a bonus, here's the +/- for Wake:




off def +/- off def +/- off def +/-
Aminu 26 25 1 47 41 6 73 66 7
Hale 0 0 0 5 5 0 5 5 0
Weaver 21 22 -1 0 0 0 21 22 -1
Woods 0 4 -4 0 0 0 0 4 -4
Clark 2 8 -6 2 3 -1 4 11 -7
Williams 40 46 -6 46 47 -1 86 93 -7
McFarland 19 25 -6 8 9 -1 27 34 -7
Smith 31 38 -7 45 46 -1 76 84 -8
Teague 38 48 -10 51 49 2 89 97 -8
Johnson 23 39 -16 51 50 1 74 89 -15

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Meet the Eagles

Boston College comes in as probably the most mercurial team in the ACC so far (or, at the very least, the simultaneous owner of the conference's best win - @UNC - and the conference's worst loss - at home against Harvard). Aside from the UNC game, though, they've struggled against the conference's better teams - two losses to Wake by a combined 37 points, a loss to Clemson at home by 10, etc.

BC's struggles, as is typical with an Al Skinner team, have come on the defensive side of the ball. BC's defensive rating in ACC play is 111.19 (last, after the NCSU-GT game yesterday). They're last in defensive rebounding, last in forcing turnovers, and 7th in opponent field goal percentage. Opponents have collectively taken about 40 more field goals and 40 more free throws, meaning that they've had roughly 6 more chances to score than the Eagles have. For a team that's been outscored by just 19 on the ACC season, it's clear that those 6 extra chances have really cost them.

Also typical for Al Skinner's teams, BC's offense is strong. They've been the second most efficient team in conference play, trailing only the Heels, and have posted offensive ratings over 100 in 8 of 10 ACC games, including over 110 in each of the last 6. They're not standouts in any particular category, but solid across the board - 6th in shooting, 3rd in offensive rebounding, 6th in avoiding turnovers, and fourth in getting to the line. Over the last 6 games, the shooting has picked up, particularly inside - 52% from 2.

BC's led on offense by senior point guard Tyrese Rice. He uses over 30% of the Eagles possessions, plays 36 minutes a game, and is pretty high efficiency for such a high use player, posting a 109 offensive rating. His three point shooting is somewhat improved, but his inside scoring is a little down this year, and he's been more turnover prone than usual. Rice is most successful off the dribble, where he can create both for himself and his teammates (he assists on about 30% of his teammates' scores). Joining Rice in the starting backcourt is sophomore Rakim Sanders. Sanders was high usage last year as a freshman, and has continued to be so this year, using 23% of the possessions and taking 26% of the shots. However, he's improved his efficiency greatly; last year he was a black hole who couldn't shoot well and turned it over a ton, while this season he has a 117 offensive rating, doesn't turn it over (just 15.7% of his possessions) and makes over 50% of his 2s and over 40% of his 3s. He's also big for a 2 guard, at about 6'5", 225, and rebounds well out of the backcourt, getting about 8% of available offensive rebounds.

On the front line are Corey Raji, Joe Trapani, and Josh Southern. Raji has done nothing since arriving on campus last year but be extremely efficient. He's not a focal point of the offense, using only 16.5% of possessions, but he leads the team in offensive rating (120.25) on the back of never turning the ball over and pounding the offensive glass. Raji is just about 6'6", and he's in the top 6 in the conference in offensive rebounding. Someone needs to focus all day long on putting a body on him once the shot goes up. Trapani, a transfer from Vermont, has a nice inside outside game that has taken scoring pressure off of Rice and Sanders. He takes almost half his shots from 3, hitting 36% on the season. He's also the Eagles' best defensive rebounder, collecting nearly 20% of opponent misses. On the inside, Josh Southern has struggled somewhat. He's athletic, but a little undersized, and hasn't been able to score or rebound with a lot of success. He's also the most turnover prone Eagle besides Rice.

Skinner goes 4 deep off the bench, with the most effective contributor being Reggie Jackson. He's actually the team's 4th-leading scorer in ACC play, and gets over 20 minutes a game. He's been a much better shooter inside (27-46, 58.7%) than outside (3-22, 13.6%). Biko Paris is the backup point guard, and has on several occasions only gotten minutes when Rice sits. He's been more highly used recently, to good effect. He is mostly an assist man - 22 assists and just 26 field goal attempts - but he's shown a surprising propensity to get to the line, with a free throw rate of 88.5. Tyler Roche, a wing, plays about 10 minutes a game and does little more than shoot threes. He's been mostly ineffective on the season thus far. My personal bench player for the Eagles, though, is Cortney Dunn, who makes Dave McClure look like a high use player. Dunn has averaged 16 minutes a game in ACC play, and scored just 16 points. Total. And a full 8 of those came this week against Clemson. He uses a miniscule 5.15% of possessions, which is last in the conference by a healthy margin. The sum total of his offensive contribution is 11 field goal attempts, 9 free throw attempts, 9 offensive rebounds, and 2 turnovers. Put another way, I don't think we need to pay too much attention to him when he's in the game.

Duke matches up very well with BC, with the exception of Paulus on Rice. But that's been a matchup problem for three years now, and has yet to hurt the Devils. This is a game that I think Brian Zoubek can have a positive impact on - neither Southern nor Dunn are used much on offense, and both are significantly smaller than he is. Having the big guy patrolling the lane may frustrate some of Rice's drives. On the rest of the perimeter, Scheyer and Henderson match up very well with Sanders and Raji, and Singler and McClure can easily chase Trapani around the perimeter. When it comes down to it, I don't think this BC team can play defense well enough to beat Duke (particularly if the Devils carry over some of the downhill offense that worked so well against UNC).

Friday, February 13, 2009

UNC 101, Duke 87

First off, I want to dispel two rumors about this game: 1) that Duke had its first-half successes against the Tar Heel bench, and 2) that the Tar Heels stayed fresher toward the end of the game due to better bench use.

As to the first, Carolina led 31-24 with 8:39 to play, and there was a ball knocked out of bounds. The Heels make a couple subs, and go with Lawson, Frasor, Green, Thompson, and Hansbrough. Hansbrough charges, then commits a defensive foul, then Scheyer hits a jumper. Another dead ball, and Ellington comes in for Green. Over the next 7 possessions, Duke goes on a 16-3 run to take a 6 point lead. So the Devils' big push came against 5 of the top 6 guys in the Tar Heel rotation. Larry Drew, Ed Davis, and Mike Copeland were not involved. During the first half, every Tar Heel but Thompson was in the minus column for +/- - Lawson was -4, Hansbrough -6. Interestingly enough, the 5 on the court for Duke's big run (Lawson, Frasor, Ellington, Thompson, Hansbrough) ended up being the five highest Tar Heels in +/- for the game.

As to the second, if the Tar Heels were fresher at the end of the game, it had precisely zero to do with the minutes played last night. In the first half, Carolina's top 6 played 18 (Ellington), 16 (Lawson), 14 (Hansbrough), 14 (Thompson), 12 (Green), and 12 (Frasor). The other three guys combined for 14 minutes. In the first half, Duke's top 6 played 16 (Henderson), 16 (Singler), 15 (Scheyer), 15 (Paulus), 11 (Thomas), 10 (Smith). McClure and Zoubek combined for 17. The numbers for the second half are remarkably similar - in the same order, Carolina's top 6 played 16, 18, 19, 10, 12, and 15. Davis added 8, Drew 2. For Duke, in the same order, they played 18, 17, 18, 13, 9, 12. McClure added 11, Zoubek 2. There's no meaningful difference in the number of minutes played or the distribution of those minutes.

Now that that's all out of the way, what happened last night was pretty simple: the better team won. When you put a very good team on the court with a very, very good team, and both play well, the very, very good team will win unless the very good team gets a couple breaks. Unfortunately for Duke, all the breaks seemed to go against them. There were, I thought, two key sequences to the game, and they occurred back-to-back. The first was when Lawson decided he wanted to take over, and single-handedly took the Heels on a 6-0 run that spread the lead from 3 to 9. He simply abused Paulus. I've always thought Lawson was great in the open court but only so-so in the half court - last night, he was legitimately great in both. The second sequence immediately followed. At that point, there was 6:38 showing on the clock - hardly an insurmountable time/score deficit. Duke subbed in Smith and McClure for Paulus and Thomas, going for defense and quickness. Coming out of the substitution, Smith threw a pass to a curling Scheyer, who was tripped/slipped - turnover. Carolina takes the ball, and Duke plays the best 30 seconds of defense it played all night. The Tar Heels were left with what was legitimately a desperation three from Hansbrough - that was so out of kilter from his normal shooting form, I thought it would be lucky to hit the backboard. Of course it goes in, UNC by 12. The next possession, Scheyer gets stripped going to the bucket. Lawson misses the break jumper, but gets the board. He pulls out, and Duke again plays great defense, forcing a difficult shot that misses. The rebound bounces around, gets tipped by several guys, finally Singler gets what looked like a good, easy shot to grab it, and he just fumbles it out of bounds. When Carolina resets the offense, Duke again gets a great defensive play from McClure, blocking what looked like a wide open 3 from Ellington. Then Smith fouls Lawson (I think non-shooting, but I don't remember for certain), two FTs good, and more importantly, 57 seconds off the clock. The very next play, Henderson slips on the floor and loses the ball out of bounds. The clock now shows 4:31, and Carolina is suddenly up 14. In that 2:07 span, Duke didn't get a shot off, and held the ball for just :37 (despite having 3 possessions to UNC's 2). Those two sequences were like a boxer's knockout combination. Lawson's three drives were jab, jab, jab, Tyler's three was the cross, and the minute-long possession was the uppercut. Henderson's fall to the floor made it clear that the knockout was in at that point. (Ugh, enough boxing analogies).

I certainly don't mean to suggest that Carolina won the game only because a couple bounces went their way - that's not true at all. They won the game because their offense was exceptional - it was the highest offensive rating posted against Duke since I started charting this stuff (admittedly, not long). My point is only that Duke needs a couple of bounces to go its way to beat the Heels when UNC is playing well, and last night, that most certainly did not happen. That second sequence could easily have been a 9-10 point swing in the other direction - if Hansbrough misses and Singler can grab the board, that's 5 away from the Heels; if Duke gets shots at the other end (and makes them) instead of slip-and-falls, that's 4-6 for the Devils, and it's a 5 point game with 5 minutes to play, rather than 14. But that's not the way it happened.

Duke now has 7 games left in the regular season, 5 of which are on the road. The last four will be particularly tough - Blacksburg and College Park are not fun places for Duke teams to play, FSU can give the Devils all they can handle, and the there's that big ugly building a few miles down 15-501. The Devils really need to carry forward the offensive game they had last night, while recommitting at the defensive end (where they've been torched 2 of the last 3 games after wholly dominating teams all season).

Here's the HD Box from last night - as a little bonus, I've also included the +/- for the Tar Heel players.

Ellington 19
Lawson 15
Hansbrough 14
Thompson 13
Frasor 7
Davis 5
Green 2
Drew -1
Copeland -4

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Meet the Tar Heels

UNC comes to town tomorrow night, and while I know they don't generally need much introduction to Duke fans, I'm doing this for every team, so what the heck. UNC under Roy Williams has taken on the rep of an all offense no defense team. In the past, that reputation has been somewhat unfair. This year, however, Carolina has legitimately struggled on the defensive end in conference play. 5 of their 9 opponents, including 3 of the last 4, have scored more than a point per possession. They've been relatively torched by NC State and Maryland, two teams that are otherwise offensively challenged. Overall, Carolina's just 5th in overall defense, 5th in shooting defense, 9th in forcing turnovers, and dead last in steals. About the only thing they do well on defense is avoid fouls - their opponents get a smaller share of their scoring from the line than any team in the ACC.

That said, their offense is exceptionally good. It's the best in ACC play be a healthy margin, and 2nd best in the country overall. They haven't scored less than a point per possession yet, and only FSU and Wake - two teams with a lot of size - have really given them trouble from an offensive point of view. They thrive on offensive rebounding, getting to the line, and (somewhat surprisingly) three point shooting. When free throws are factored in, the Heels are the best shooting team in the ACC, leading the conference in PPWS.

Carolina has 4 exceptional offensive performers - Ellington, Lawson, Green, and Hansbrough. They currently rank 1-4 in offensive rating in the conference and are all in the top 14 in points produced. Ellington has had a terrific conference season, averaging over 21 a game in his last six, and is shooting over 44% from downtown. Ellington hasn't had an offensive rating below 100 since December, and is on quite a mini-streak, going 179, 159, 139 in his last 3. As good as Ellingotn has been from outside, Lawson and Green have been better (if less frequent). Green is hitting 45.1% from 3 in conference play, and Lawson is 48.4%. Green has had surprising struggles from 2 (just over 42%) and is less prolific on the offensive glass than in prior seasons. Lawson, for his part, is back up at 3:1 assist/turnover ratio. After struggling early with turning the ball over, he's put 15 assists and zero turns in his past two games. He's the team's motor and barometer - in the losses to Wake and BC, he combined for just 19 points, 9 assists, and 8 turnovers on 7 of 25 shooting. Since then, his offensive ratings have been ridiculous - 185, 128, 127, 168, 112, 186, and 152.

On the inside, Hansbrough again leads the way, consuming by far the greatest share of the Heels' possessions. He averages just about 21/game in conference play, bolstered largely by his 9.5 trips to the line each contest. He draws 8.6 fouls per 40 minutes of game time, which means that by his lonesome, he almost fouls out 2 guys per. He's struggling more from the field than he has in years past, shooting just 46.5% from 2 in conference play, but is still cleaning up on the offensive glass and getting to the line, keeping his efficiency high.

As good as those four have been, the rest of the Tar Heel team really struggles on offense. Only Ed Davis has an offensive rating above 100, and it's entirely the product of his offensive rebounding. He hasn't been a strong shooter inside at all. He is an imposing presence down low, though, dominating the boards on both ends of the court and currently leading the conference in block rate. Deon Thompson has severely struggled in ACC play. He's just a 36% shooter, and does that even though the defense has to devote so much attention to the other 4 starters. In the backcourt, Bobby Frasor's outside shot has deserted him (he's 1-14 from downtown in the ACC) and he's had a bit of the turnover bug. He's still a solid perimeter defender, but has been a total non-threat on offense thus far this year. No one, however, can compare to Larry Drew for offensive futility. Drew's offensive rating is 62.30, good for last in the ACC. He turns it over nearly 50% of the possessions he uses, good for last in the ACC. And he's just a 33% shooter who has yet to hit from outside in ACC play.

The Tar Heels are going to play fast - they again lead the conference in pace - and from the inside out. Injuries and poor play have essentially turned them into a four man team - Hansbrough, Ellington, Green, and Lawson score a collective 80% of the team's total points (not weighted for time on the court) while playing just 61% of the total minutes. The rest of the time has combined for just 158 points in conference play - that's fewer than Hansbrough (188) and Ellington (174) have on their own. Carolina is not a deep team, and is surprisingly ill equipped to weathering off nights from any of their big 4 (not that they've had to deal with many of those).

I think the key to this game is going to be whether Duke can exploit Carolina's lackadaisical defense. The Heels will produce points - I think the best Duke can hope for is to hold them in the 1.00-1.05 point per possession range. But that's a level of efficiency Duke has produced on offense just once (against UVA) in the past 4 games. The Devils are going to have to win this one with offense. At the very least, this should be a heck of an effort from Duke. Hansbrough and Green are undefeated in Cameron (and Paulus is winless). It's been a long, long, long time since a Tar Heel graduating class has gone 4-0 at Duke, and you can bet this year's Devils are dying to prevent that from happening now.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Duke 78, Miami 75 (and a wrap from the Clemson game)

There's obviously a lot of season to be played, and the team could very well make me look silly by coming out flat on Wednesday and getting run out of the building by the Heels, but there's a strong possibility that this team will look back to the second half and overtime of the Miami game as a turning point. Coming off of the debacle against Clemson, which was the lowest scoring output by Duke in this side of forever, the Devils managed to play even worse on offense in the first half against Miami. The numbers are alm0st comically bad - 6 of 31 from the field, including just 2 of 15 from inside. Only 4 of 24 offensive rebounds. 19 points in 34 possessions. They started 1-4 in the second half, and it looked like it might be Clemson redux. And then McClure checked in for Thomas, and all of a sudden, for whatever reason, it clicked.

Duke immediately went on a 20-4 run that tied things up at 42. Duke scored on 8 straight possessions thanks in part to improved shooting but also to a determination to hit the offensive glass and hit it hard. The Devils got 7 offensive rebounds in a row and held Miami to 7:30 minutes without a rebound on either end of the court. The effort that had been missing for the last three halves was back, and the Devils were once again working harder than their opponents and making plays because of it. In the second half and OT, Duke got 13 of 15 defensive rebounds and 14 of 28 offensive rebounds. They forced the Canes into 10 turnovers, and committed just 4. Most importantly, they got some offensive production, putting up 59 points in 42 possessions and walking away with a win.

We've seen the lineup that may carry us the rest of the way this season - Paulus, Scheyer, Henderson, McClure, and Singler. Those guys played 34 of the last 37 possessions of the game, and outscored Miami 50-32 over that stretch. 4 guys - Singler, Scheyer, Henderson, and Paulus gave us big offensive contributions (although Singler's day was really inefficient). And McClure simply controlled the boards - 13 rebounds, including 7 offensive, in just 29 minutes.

For Miami, Jack McClinton was ridiculous, with 34 points, including 5-6 threes (and the game tying shot at the end of regulation). Collins had a nice moment putting Paulus on a poster, but was otherwise completely neutralized. Again, the Canes couldn't force turnovers, and it really hurt them. Duke took 19 more shots from the field than Miami did, and on a day when they shot poorly, they needed every one of them to prevail. The Canes also struggled with turnovers of their own, coughing it up 19 times. It was a total team effort in that regard - 6 different players had multiple TOs during the game, including Dews, who "led" the way with 4 (marring an otherwise productive performance).

So now Carolina comes to town, and despite the offensive problems Duke has had this year, they'll be playing UNC for first place outright. Hopefully the style of play we see is more second half, and less first - this team needs to be up and energetic for the Heels.

A brief recap from Wednesday. Obviously, the offense against Clemson was bad, but the backbreaking part of the game was how poorly the defense played. Coming out of halftime, Clemson scored on 10 of the first 14 posssessions, scoring 22 points and completely putting the game out of reach. In that stretch, Clemson simply abused Duke on the glass, picking up 6 of their 7 misses and turning them into scores. Trevor Booker had the best game I've ever seen him play. He had a 165 offensive rating and converted possessions into scored over 80% of the time. He hit a wide variety of shots, played active on the boards, picked up 3 blocks, and ran the point of the press very well. It was a virtuoso performance.

Around the ACC

Carolina sleep-walked past Virginia 76-61. Jeff Jones and Sylven Landesberg turned in nice performances, but Virginia was just plain out-classed. Carolina particularly shut down the inside scoring, holding the Cavs to a woeful 13-43 from 2. For the Heels on offense, Ellington, Lawson, and Green led the way. They combined to hit 9-21 from downtown and picked up 17 assists against 2 turnovers. More troubling, the bench did nothing - 47 minutes, just 8 points and 5 turnovers.

Clemson led 44-25 with 14:45 left in the game. They led 57-42 with 8:46 to go. And then the offense stopped. FSU finished the game on a 23-4 run. The Noles scored on 11 of the final 13 possessions, shocking the Tigers and picking up a very big road win. Solomon Alabi had a nice final 8 minutes, picking up a couple key blocks, a few key baskets, and 4 big rebounds. For the Tigers, Terrence Oglesby was instrumental in the collapse, missing 3 threes and committing a costly offensive foul. From where I sit, FSU is sitting safely in the #5 position in terms of bid likelihood in the ACC (behind UNC, Duke, Wake, and Clemson). They don't have a bad loss anywhere on the resume, and have shown that they can beat pretty much anyone they play (the losses to Duke, Pitt, and UNC were by a combined 21 points).

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Meet the Hurricanes

Going into Wednesday night, Miami had the worst defense in conference play. Every team they had played scored at least a point per possession, and 5 posted offensive ratings of 110 or better. So of course they were going to hold Wake Forest to 52 points in 68 possessions, by far the best Miami's looked on defense since November.

Despite the Wake game, Miami is still a poor defensive team. They don't turn opponents over - 11th in the conference at just 17.4%. They don't block shots - also 11th in the conference. Teams score with relative ease against the Canes as well - they let opponents shoot .508 efg%, 9th in the conference. Despite all that, Miami is currently sitting at nearly .500 in conference play-with a very slightly positive efficiency margin-due to some very efficient offense. They score 1.0835 points per possession, 3rd in the conference. As with all Miami teams, they're highly active on the offensive board, collecting 40% of available offensive rebounds. And they're currently leading the league in shooting.

Miami is paced by Jack McClinton. He's a very high efficiency scorer, putting up a 118 offensive rating in conference play while using nearly 30% of Miami's possessions. McClinton hits 43% of his 3s, a respectable 47% of his 2s, and 85% from the line. He's a dangerous offensive threat, and will almost certainly go for over 20 today (the key is making it an inefficient 20, but that's easier said than done. Joining him in the backcourt is Lance Hurdle. Hurdle's really struggled with his inside shot - just 11-39 from 2. He's also vulnerable to turnovers, losing the ball on 23% of his possessions. He's been a decent, but not dangerous, point guard.

In the front court, Miami starts Dwayne Collins, Brian Asbury, and new addition to the lineup Adrian Thomas. Thomas has really played his way into a starting job. He's in double figures 5 of his last 8 games, hits 50% from 3 and 9 of 13 from 2, and gets after it on the offensive glass. His usage is relatively limited, but he has an exceptional 142 offensive rating (exactly what you want from a role player). Collins is doing exactly what he's always done - rebound, rebound, rebound. He's one of the best offensive rebounders in the conference, gathering over 15% of Miami's misses. Collins has battled foul trouble in his last couple games, but he's still a dangerous scorer inside when he can stay on the court (as Duke fans should remember). One thing he doesn't do is block shots - just 1 so far in ACC play. Asbury is a very inconsistent player - capable of 21 one night and 0 the next. Asbury has a tendency to bomb away from outside, which is good for opponents, since he's a sub-30% 3-point shooter. Asbury's also one of Miami's more active defenders, with the length and quickness to create both steals and blocks.

Miami goes deep into the bench, with 9 guys getting at least 10 minutes a game in conference play. James Dews, a starter last year (and earlier this year) has really struggled with his shot, hitting just 6-28 from 3 in conference play. Jimmy Graham is a very good rebounder - over 10% on offense and over 30% on defense. He has 61 rebounds in 161 total ACC minutes, which translates to about 15 per 40. That's excellent. Cyrus McGowan, an Arkansas transfer, has also played his way from the starting lineup to the bench. He hasn't hit double figures since the Clemson game back in December, and has been turning the ball over too much. DeQuan Jones, a very highly touted recruit, has also seen his minutes cut in conference play, and with good reason - he has the lowest offensive rating of all Hurricanes.

Miami is going to try to win this game with offense, and after being shredded by Clemson on Wednesday, Duke's defense will again be tested. Of course, hopefully Miami's defense (or lack thereof) helps Duke's offense get back in the swing of things as well.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Meet the Tigers

Clemson has, for the most part, flown under the radar this year. That's what happens when you reach February 3 with a record of 18-2 and only one of those wins is against a top 25 team (Illinois, who was unranked at the time). The only time they've played opponents better than they are (Wake, UNC), they've lost by a combined 34 points. Fortunately for the Tigers, they only have two of those games left - end of the season at Wake Forest, and tonight against Duke. This team has 2006-2007 Virginia written all over it - that team tied for first in the ACC and picked up a 4 seed on the back of a very, very easy conference schedule, and being just good enough to win the games they should (which, when you think about it, is no mean feat). If Clemson can just take care of business against the teams below it in the conference, they'll be 26-4 (12-4) and staring at a 3 of 4 seed.

Like always under Oliver Purnell, Clemson makes liberal use of the full court press (I think it's a 1-2-1-1, but am not positive). Raymond Sykes has stepped into the roll James Mays played, running the point of that press and using a long, lanky frame (think Lance Thomas with a lot more hair) to be disruptive in the back court. As usual, Clemson's press generates a lot of turnovers - 24% of opponents' possessions in conference play, good for third in the league behind FSU and Duke. Also like always, Clemson's field goal defense is not great - once the press is broken, Clemson is in the bottom half of the league in preventing baskets. This year, the Tigers have also struggled as a defensive rebounding team, letting opponents grab nearly 40% of their misses.

On offense, Clemson's done a great job thus far avoiding the turnover. They lead the conference in lowest turnover percentage at 16.93%, and the end result in raw terms is that they commit 5 fewer turnovers a game than they create. That's essentially five free turns on offense every game, and since Clemson is a team that so far has been outshot by it's opponents, they're five very needed turns. On that shooting front, Clemson is 9th in efg% (.469) and 10th in PPWS, joining Georgia Tech and Maryland as the only teams in ACC play who don't get at least one point per weighted shot. Clemson has been particularly vulnerable inside, shooting a league-low .412 on their twos and getting blocked on a league-worst 10.86% of their shots. The free throw shooting, formerly the Tigers' Achilles heel, has been much improved this year. After two years in a row getting essentially no contribution from the free throw line, Clemson now picks up a respectable 19% of its points from the stripe and has hit 67.4% of its free throws (which is certainly not great, but a huge improvement after seasons in the 50s).

Clemson is led by senior wing KC Rivers and junior forward Trevor Booker. Rivers leads the team with a 125.47 offensive rating in just about 20% usage (all numbers ACC play only). He's been deadly from 3, hitting 17 of his 28 attempts, including 7 of 10 last week against Virginia Tech. He also has a freakishly low turnover percentage, coughing it up just 8.9% of the time. For a guy used as frequently as he is, that's very, very good. Booker has found the ACC to be a bit more of a struggle. He leads the team in minutes and is the focus of the offense inside, but has shot just 44% from 2 and hasn't been collecting offensive rebounds with the frequency he has in the past. Booker's offensive rating is just barely over 100, which is in the lower half of performers in league play.

Taking an increasingly bigger role in the offense is sophomore shooting guard Terrence Oglesby. If there's one thing you can count on tonight, it's that he will take many 3s. He averages almost 7 a game, and took 13 each against UNC and Georgia Tech. His shooting's been just ok - 34% from 3 and a subpar 36% from 2 - but like Rivers, he's been freakishly good at avoiding turnovers, so his offensive rating is a respectable 112.11. Of course, it's rather easy to avoid coughing the ball up when your role on offense consists largely of "catch, shoot, repeat." Oglesby is joined in the backcourt by Demontez Stitt, who has found the ACC no easier his second time around. Stitt has struggled with his shot, posting a .327 efg%, which is in the bottom 10 in the league, and is not at all a threat from outside. Unlike Rivers and Oglesby, he turns the ball over with some frequency, coughing it up 22% of the time he uses a possession. He is clearly the weakest link in the starting 5, and may be particularly vulnerable tonight against a Duke defense that has not made life easy on opposing point guards. Rounding out the starting five is Raymond Sykes, who is a voracious offensive rebounder (3rd in the league among qualifying players at 15.63%). However, he, like the rest of the Tigers, otherwise struggles with his inside game, shooting under 50% from 2 and turning it over with abundance - 2.5/game in just 20 minutes/game of playing time.

One area where Clemson is strong is the bench. They go 9 deep in every game, and have a well-distributed set of bench players - Andre Young to backup the point, Tanner Smith to play the 2/3, David Potter to play the 3/4, and Jerai Grant down low. Young has proven no steadier a hand than Stitt, turning it over on 29% of his possessions and posting a team low 85.96 offensive rating (wildly obvious observation - when your two point guards are your two worst offensive players, you're not going to have a highly effective offense). Tanner Smith takes good care of the ball and hits open shots from 3 (he won't really take a contested look), but does little else. David Potter is good for leaving 1s and 2s everywhere in the box score - he'll get one or two offensive and defensive rebounds, a couple assists, a couple steals, and a couple shots. He's also one of the Tigers' best on-ball defenders, and gets the most minutes off the bench. Finally, Jerai Grant has taken a big leap forward this year. He rebounds with the same tenacity of Sykes on the offensive end and is a presence inside on defense, blocking 7.4% of opponents' shots, best in the league.

Clemson's biggest test tonight will be making shots against the Duke defense. Only Andre Young hits at least 50% from 2 (and he's just 5-10) and 5 of the 9 guys in the rotation are below 40%. Duke has been the hardest team to score on from 2 so far this season, holding opponents to just 40.8%. This does not seem to bode well for Clemson. The turnover battle will be another key factor to watch - both teams are in the top 4 in both forcing turnovers and protecting the ball on their own end. Last season, the team with fewer turnovers won each game; we'll see if that trend can continue tonight.

Around the ACC

UNC's offense is very good. They've had back-to-back performances of 130 offensive ratings. Four of their starters have offensive ratings of 124 or better in conference play - they're 1st (Ellington), 2nd (Lawson), 4th (Hansbrough), and 6th (Green), and if you limit it to players who use at least 20% of possessions, they go 1-2-3-4. But yikes does this team not play defense. 5 conference opponents have topped a point per possession and the last two - NC State and Maryland, the 9th and 10th rated offenses in the conference - hit nearly 110 offensive ratings. Also, they're really no longer a deep team. With the announcement that Ginyard will take a medical hardship year and Graves will be suspended, suddenly the bench consists of Ed Davis, Larry Drew, and Bobby Frasor. Hard not to say "what if" about this season if you're a Carolina fan; losing Ginyard and Zeller for the year totally transformed this team from clear favorite for the title to one of a handful of very good teams that could win. But they're suddenly vulnerable to foul trouble and tired legs, because they lack the talent on the bench they were supposed to have in abundance.

Monday, February 02, 2009

Duke 79, Virginia 54

Duke shot out to an early 22-point lead, and then essentially coasted the rest of the way. From the time it hit 34-12, the lead stayed in a narrow range, going between 16 and 27 the rest of the way (and in the second half, the range was even smaller - Virginia never got closer than 21, and 27 was the biggest lead). Again, defense led the way. Duke put on stifling ball pressure, forcing the Cavaliers into 17 turnovers in 38 possessions - that's 45%, almost every other time down the court. 7 came in the first 10 possessions alone. One of the hallmarks of the Duke defense is that it makes teams play faster than they want to; freshmen are particularly vulnerable to that. Virginia's freshman backcourt got going way, way too fast, and coughed the ball up like crazy.

On offense, Gerald Henderson's multi-faceted scoring attack continues to shine. He had 14 before Virginia had a dozen. He had an extremely efficient 18 points, and hit shots in a variety of fashions - dunks, jumpers off the dribbles, spot up 3s. His game is becoming more complete by the day. Scheyer got a little bit of his shot back, nailing 3 of 5 threes. He was also extremely active on the offensive glass. Speaking of the boards, Duke had a pretty dominant defensive rebounding performance (20 of 28, 71.4%), but did it without anyone getting more than 3. Seven different players had either 2 or 3 defensive rebounds. All season it's been a team effort on the glass, and yesterday's game was perhaps the most emblematic of that.

The biggest positive from yesterday, though, was the play of Nolan Smith. He was aggressive, constantly working to get into the lane for layups and pull-ups. He kept getting good shots, finishing 6-8 for 2 and 1-2 from 3. His ability to penetrate on a consistent basis will give this team a much needed weapon to compliment Henderson, Singler, and Scheyer. Hopefully he can carry his outlook from this game into the last half of the ACC. Here's the HD Box: