Thursday, January 31, 2008

NC State Preview

Coming into the season, NC State was a consensus pick to be a certain tournament team and possibly to make some serious noise in the post-season. They added an All-American center to an already talented mix of wings and posts. Sydney Lowe's red coat had been the centerpiece of a remarkable string of wins to end the season, nearly taking the ACC tournament crown from the 10th spot.

When JJ Hickson had arguably the most impressive debut for an ACC freshman, all the pundits and prognosticators patted themselves on the back - look how good the Pack can be. Pretty much since then, the season has been a colossal "ugh." The Pack's lack of a point guard has been a killer, particularly since Farnold Degand went down with an injury. Javier Gonzalez and Marques Johnson, the replacements, both turn the ball over in more than 1/3 of the possessions they use. The other major problem has been the inability of Costner, McCauley, and Hickson to coexist inside. The result of this has been as drastic a fall-off in performance for the two incumbents as I can recall. Last year Costner and McCauley had high offensive ratings and high field goal percentages. They each cleaned up on the glass, and McCauley even posted a 20%+ assist rate. This year, their numbers are down in every category - fewer points, fewer rebounds, worse shooting, fewer assists, and more turnovers. Costner's performance has been so bad he got himself pulled from the starting lineup, and he played just 15 minutes against Georgia Tech. Part of me says this has to be statistical aberration, and that Costner (and to a lesser extent McCauley) are too good for this to continue. And yet, it continues with every passing game, and if anything, it's getting worse.

NC State ranks last in defensive efficiency and second-to-last in offensive efficiency in conference play. Their fg% defense isn't bad, thanks to lots of size, both in the post and on the wing. But the Pack is really hurt by an inability to secure defensive rebounds and a total lack of interest in taking the ball away from their opponent. NC State ranks 335th nationally in defensive takeaways - yes, you read that correctly, 335th. This means opponents get a lot of extra opportunities to try to put the ball in the hole (262 more field goal attempts, to be precise), effectively negating the good shooting defense and leading to lots of scoring for the opposition.

This does not look to be a good matchup for the Pack. Gonzalez and Johnson are turnover-prone points playing their first game in Cameron, against a Duke defense that has fed off of steals all season. Courtney Fells and Hickson have been the only reliable scorers on a team that doesn't have a high-scoring offense. The recipe is right for a blowout. Yes it's the ACC, and yes the games have been unpredictable, and yes NC State has lots of size inside where Duke is weak. But I just can't see the Pack staying close in this one - too many turnovers and easy baskets for Duke will doom NC State tonight. I expect a 15-25 point margin, something in the 80s to something in the 60s.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Maryland Recap

Duke won this game 22-10. The final score may have read 93-84, but the real margin of victory was 22-10. That was the discrepancy in turnovers - Duke forced 22, Maryland could muster only 10. Getting 12 free possessions was key in a game where Maryland got pretty much whatever it wanted inside. Duke's defense and defensive rotation is geared toward the perimeter, and Maryland was able to take advantage of weaknesses inside. Both Gist and Osby had impressive games, although Osby tired toward the end. Duke also got easy opportunities in transition that Maryland, for the most part, did not. Those easy opportunities helped Duke shoot better than any conference opponent thus far against the Terps defense. It was Maryland's worse defensive efficiency performance of the entire year, and the generosity of its offense is at least partially to blame.

The Devils set the tone for the second half by picking up three quick Maryland turnovers and six quick points. Even though Maryland kept scoring with relative ease, Duke had seized the momentum and held it for the rest of the game. As I was going back and inputting the play-by-play from the game, I was actually surprised to see how late it was that Duke got the lead back, and how much later it was until they had the lead for good - watching the game, it seemed like Duke was in control for much of the second half.

I'm in the process of switching my data entry to a web-based system (graciously designed and programmed by a good friend), and won't be able to update stats until everything is completely switched over, so the Duke stats will remain horribly out-of-date. Hopefully this will be ready to go after the UNC game next week, but it could take until tournament time to have everything running fully smoothly. My apologies.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Maryland Preview

This has been a "gut-check" week for the Devils - two games on the road, in particularly hostile arenas, against the 2nd and 3rd best defenses in the conference (as judged by conference play so far). Duke, Virginia Tech, and Maryland are the only schools to allow fewer than one point per possession to ACC opponents so far this season. Duke was able to exceed that number against the Hokies (1.05 ppp), and will look to do the same against Maryland.

The big key to this game will be inside play. Duke leads the conference shooting an astounding 61% on two-point shots, and has not been held under 54% in a conference game. Maryland leads the conference in defending the two, holding opponents to just 40.1% inside. A big reason for this is Maryland's excellent block rate of 12%, second only to BC in conference play. Duke's ability to avoid the blocks and to get easy looks inside will be critical - if Maryland can hold the Devils to 45% or lower from 2, that will be a big leg up toward the Terps getting an upset win. Of course, to do that, Maryland needs its offense to help its defense. Maryland has been turnover prone all season (although less so in conference play), and Vazquez in particular has had at least 4 in 7 of the last 8 games and in 13 games overall this season. Duke has been relentless thus far in forcing turnovers - more than 1 every 4 possessions in conference play, and only 4 teams overall have been able to turn the ball over fewer than 1 in 5. Many of Duke's turnovers have been coming via the steal (a conference-leading 14.8%), which means open court opportunities, which contributes directly to the high 2pt fg%. Maryland needs to avoid the open court turnovers if it hopes to win this game. If Duke's points off turnovers starts getting north of 15, good night Terps.

Maryland will also need to be wary of trading 2 for 3 too many times. The Terps don't shoot the ball outside often at all, and Eric Hayes is the only real deep threat. The team as a whole is shooting under 30% from three in conference play, and gets fewer points from outside the arc than anyone in the conference. Duke, on the other hand, has been shooting threes with somewhat reckless abandon - 25.5 attempts a game so far in conference play. While the results have been decidedly mixed (only 32.4% so far), Duke's shooters are clearly better from outside, and capable of getting hot at almost any moment. If Duke hits at 35% or better from outside, it could be hard for the Terps to keep up, especially if turnovers are costing them opportunities on the offensive end.

So how do the Terps spring the upset? Item 1 would be force the Devils inside, where Maryland's defense excels. Item 2 is hold on to the ball - Maryland's turnover % needs to be around 20, and they need as few open court turnovers as possible. And Item 3 is get on the glass. Maryland has a size advantage from Gist, Osby, and Shane Walker. The Terps haven't been a great rebounding team thus far, but if they can hammer the glass to get second chance opportunities, they can keep the score close.

Around the ACC

Yesterday's results were depressing from an NCAA perspective. Both BC and FSU have relatively good tournament profiles - probably better than any of the other 9 teams behind Duke, UNC, and Clemson. Both lost at home to teams with bad tournament profiles. Not one of the other 9 teams seems capable, at this point, of distinguishing itself from the rest of the pack. Teams seem to trade wins and losses, and we could very well be looking at a season where there are just a whole bunch of teams jumbled in the middle. The teams that looked like shoe-ins for last (NC State, Georgia Tech, Wake) have been very frisky in conference play, and the teams that looked like they might be a step above (Miami, BC, Florida State) have not. 3 teams in the NCAAs is looking like an alarmingly realistic outcome - heck, if Miami beats Clemson today, there will almost certainly be only 2 ACC teams in the top 25. The ACC really needs a couple teams from the middle of the pack to get hot and distinguish themselves from the rest of the field.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Virginia Tech Preview

Virginia Tech's conference record of 2-2 is better than expected, given that they opened with 3 road games in the first 4. Any win on the road this season by a team not named Duke or North Carolina is unexpected - the gap between the rest of the teams is so small that home court advantage should play more of a decisive role this season than in recent memory. On paper, this one looks like a blowout - the Hokies are without Jeff Allen thanks to an "excuse me" elbow to a referee last weekend, which takes away one of their three primary scorers. Allen, AD Vassallo, and Deron Washington are really the only offense for the team - no one else except Dorenzo Hudson takes many shots. To call the Hokies offensively challenged would be generous. They have centers who don't score, point guards who don't shoot (and turn the ball over), and wings who can't hit from outside (except Vassallo). Put that offense against a Duke defense that has been very, very good all year, and you can expect a low number from the Hokies.

On the other side of the court, the Virginia Tech defense has been extremely stingy. Teams do not shoot well against the Hokies, and Virginia Tech also limits easy points by cleaning up on the defensive glass (70.9% of defensive boards) and not putting opponents on the line. The Hokies also have quick size to match up with Duke on the perimeter - Washington is an especially good defender who will likely be assigned to either Singler or Henderson, depending on Duke's lineup - as essentially the whole team is between 6'5" and 6'9". Duke's ability to shoot over taller players and compete on the offensive glass will be a key to the game.

When all is said and done, the Hokies simply don't have the offense to win tonight. Still, Blacksburg has not been kind to the Devils over the years, and it will be a loud and hostile environment tonight. Duke withstood an angry crowd against a better Florida State team and came out on top, and tonight should be no different.

Around the ACC

Tyler Hansbrough had his first really good game in ACC play with 10-15 from the floor and 15-16 from the line as the Heels cruise at Miami. UNC hit the boards very well, no small feat against the Canes front line.

"Douglas stole the ball" probably won't go down in "Havlicek stole the ball" fame, but his pickpocket of Singletary and subsequent FTs sealed the deal for the Noles last night. Holding court was essential to FSU, who avoided falling to 1-4 in ACC play.

Somebody better throw a bucket of water on Matt Causey, because he's been on fire. After hitting double figures just once in the first 16 games, he dropped 30 on the Hokies and followed up with 18 on the Pack. He's 16-24 from the field, including 8-13 from three, in his last two games. Continuing a year-long theme, Brandon Costner had a disappointing game for the Pack.

Why Wake Forest shoots so many threes is a mystery to me. They're awful from behind the arc - 28.8% as a team, but they chuck them up for over 1/3 of their shots. Their efg% from 3 is worse than their efg% from 2, which is not easy to do. They have effective inside scorers and Ish Smith is a good penetrator - they should take a look down I-40 to Chapel Hill for guidance and stop taking so many threes. In other news, Clemson stinks at the FT line again. Oliver Purnell should offer the guy at FSU whatever he wants to come up the road and teach the Tigers in the off-season.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Virginia Preview

Lineup questions are present for both teams heading into the final conference opener. For Duke, the questions center around Thomas' ability to play, and speculation about just how small we'll go if he can't - personally, if he can't go, I'd like to see K have some fun and go uber-small at least once, with a Paulus, Smith, Scheyer, Nelson, Henderson lineup, and play press-and-gun basketball. Luckily for Duke, UVA's frontline consists of a whole lot of guys who bring nothing to the table but size, so this is as good a game as any to be missing our starting and back-up big guys.

For Virginia, Dave Leitao has simply been schizophrenic about who plays. Coach K gets a lot of criticism for tightening the rotation too much, but Leitao has shown the dangers of going the other way and trying to play a 15-man rotation just because he can. With the exception of Singletary, Diane, and Joseph (and to a lesser extent Baker), no one on the Virginia team knows how much they'll play in any given game (if they play at all). The result has been maddeningly inconsistent play from the Cavaliers. To a certain extent, I can't blame Leitao - he has a ton of virtually interchangeable parts. There's not a whole lot of difference between Mikalauskas, Pettinella, Soroye (slightly better blocker, slightly worse rebounder), and Meyinsse; and similarly, there's not really much difference between Tat, Tucker, Harris, and Jones. The problem is not that these guys are all so good that he can't keep them off the floor - instead it's that none are very good, and that all can do things that hurt UVA on the court, and Leitao hasn't figured out which guys in these two groups he actually trusts. Until he does, he's going to keep the minutes for each going up and down like a yo-yo, and the Cavaliers won't build any consistency.

Sean Singletary's annual slow start hasn't helped things either. Much like last season, Singletary has not been an efficient offensive player early in the season. He shoots under 40% from 2 and turns the ball over a ton - he actually has the lowest offensive rating among UVA's starters. Yes, he's always capable of getting hot and just killing a team, but it hasn't really happened yet this year.

Singletary is just selfish enough and just inefficient enough that the Marco Killingsworth game-plan may work on him. When Duke played Indiana a couple years ago, the Devils decided to let Killingsworth do his thing and focus on shutting down everyone else on the court. It worked - Killingsworth had a big game, but got absolutely no help, and Duke won. Letting Singletary run loose in a similar manner may not be a bad game-plan. If he scores 30-35, but UVA only scores 60, the Devils are going to win. The key is making sure that the Cavs don't get multiple guys in double figures. Singletary can't beat Duke by himself.

Around the ACC

UNC is good. NC State is not. 25-0 is embarrassing.

Wake Forest will continue to struggle on the defensive side of the ball. Allowing 13-19 from 3 is ridiculous.

FSU may be better than we thought, and could be a serious threat if/when guys like Vaughn, Alabi, Reid, and Breeden come back. Numbers you don't see too often - 4 guys played 47+ minutes for the Noles and another played 41. Also, Trevor Booker is a beast - he's starting to take over this Clemson team.

Vazquez is struggling without 3 seniors taking pressure off of him in the lineup - 2-14 and 6 turnovers. There's a saying that not all close games are good games, and this one was a good example.

Miami has a tournament bid to lose at this point. I haven't seen anything to show me that they shouldn't finish above Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Virginia Tech, Maryland, Virginia, Boston College, NC State, and FSU.