Sunday, December 21, 2008

Two Dominating Wins

The Devils had themselves a very nice post-finals week. First, they got back on the horse against UNC-Asheville, a team that is not at all good, but that Duke thoroughly dominated as they should have. The Devils were initially propelled by hot outside shooting, and then continued to pull away by forcing turnover after turnover after turnover and crashing the offensive glass for second chance opportunities. Duke used an extremely balanced offensive attack - 6 players in double figures, 3 more with at least 6, and everyone except Marty Pocius and Olek Czyz picked up at least a point for every possession they used. Duke put the game away for good with a 13-possession 22-8 run that occurred when the usual starting lineup was first on the floor together as a unit. For good reason, K left this lineup alone during this run - a 13-possession stretch without substitution may be the longest I've seen in the 2 1/2 seasons of tracking Duke's games - and for good reason, as they scored on 9 of 13 possessions and forced Asheville into many missed shots. Here's the HD Box:

Then, on Saturday, Duke simply stomped Xavier out of New Jersey. The Devils opened the game on an 18-1 run, and led by such comfortable margins as 39-16, 48-18, and (the halftime score) 55-24. Duke used stifling defense (10 turnovers in 39 possessions, 33% shooting, 81% defensive rebounding) and ridiculously efficient offense (scoring on 23 of 39 possessions and getting 55 points out of those 23 scoring possessions) to end this game at the 20-minute mark. The teams played essentially equal basketball in the second half - Duke led by a score of 73-43 and was up 26 with as little as a couple minutes left - before Xavier ended the game on a 10-2 run to make the margin look slightly more respectable than it actually was.

The whole team played well, but two especially stood out in my mind: Jon Scheyer and Brian Zoubek. Scheyer was obviously lights out on offense - 4-4 from 2, 5-7 from 3 - but it was the way he got his points that was almost as impressive. He seemed to have a great intuitive sense for knowing when to drive and when to spot up, and pretty much always had the defense unprepared for whichever option he took. Also, he had my single favorite play of the game, which was the no-look from the free throw line to McClure to end the first half. That play was a textbook example of jab-jab-jab-uppercut - Duke had, on several previous possessions, driven to the free throw line and then kicked out to the wing. When Scheyer drove to the free throw line, the Musketeer defense immediately overplayed the wing, leaving McClure open on the baseline cut for the easy deuce.

Zoubek (for the second game in a row) also looked solid. He has improved substantially on defense - he leaves his feet less often, he doesn't reach as much, and he uses his height to his advantage. He got 4 blocks yesterday simply by making himself an obstacle - guys drove toward him, tried hang in the air long enough to get around him, couldn't, and as soon as they were vulnerable to the block, Brian reached out and swatted the ball. Also, he had my second and third favorite plays of the game - the big follow dunk and the sweet low-to-the-ground bounce pass off the block to (again) a cutting McClure.

Here's the HD Box from the Xavier game:

Around the ACC

Good day in ACC hoops yesterday, with only Virginia losing (this may not be a 10-win team this year). BC's win over Providence was particularly nice - middle to bottom of the pack ACC teams beating middle to bottom of the pack Big East teams will always be met with approval here.

Today features FSU and Pitt in a game that could really make or break the Noles non-con season. Florida State gets to host, so hopefully the fans at the Leon Civic Center will be loud and raucous against the Panthers.

And then the marquee matchup of the day is the opener to ACC play (and the only conference game to be played before the new year) as the Clemson Tigers travel to Miami to take on the Hurricanes. Clemson has jumped out to an 11-0 start against very mediocre competition - only the win at Illinois is something to really crow about. Miami, on the other hand, dropped out of the top 25 after the home loss to Ohio State (thanks to Jack McClinton losing his temper) and is now looking to show folks that they are (as they were hyped in the preseason) the third-best team in the conference. Should be a great matchup tonight, and one I'm very much looking forward to watching.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

No More Finals!

Taking a loss into finals week cannot have been fun for the Blue Devils. It's the longest off-period of the season (Duke has had an 11-day break), it's a high stress period, and all you have to think about from your last game is the sound of the ball clanking off the rim. More than anything else about tonight's game, I'm sure the Devils are ecstatic just to be getting back out on the court.

It should help that they're getting back out on the court against what is, in raw terms, the third worst defense in the country. UNC-Asheville has been torched this year to the tune of 1.2 points per possession. Yes, some of that was due to a throttling by UNC, but Asheville has also given up over 1.33 points per possession to VMI and the Campbell Camels (a team whose offense is 217th in the country, and that ranking includes the 94-point in 70-possession performance against Asheville). Asheville's defensive problems are two-fold - they don't make their opponents miss, and they don't take the ball away - the team is 340th! in both categories, letting opponents shoot a .583 efg% and forcing turnovers on just 15.6% of possessions.

The former can be explained, in large part, by a decided team-wide lack of height. This was not supposed to be a problem in the pre-season, as UNC-west is the home of Kenny George, the 7'7" behemoth who helped take Asheville to the Big South title. But he developed a serious health condition (that I believe resulted in a foot amputation) and is no longer playing. That left the Bulldogs short-legged. Only one guy in the rotation clears 6'6", and he plays just barely 11 minutes a game. The team starts a lineup that goes 6'2", 6'4", 6'6", 6'6", 6'6", and none of these are particularly big guys.

The Devils should be able to exploit a significant size advantage. Look for them to refocus on the inside (particularly after the results of the 3-point shooting display in the Michigan game) and try to get Zoubek, Thomas, Singler, Plumlee, and (if he's smart) Henderson looks in the post. Also look for Duke to employ a heavy press - Asheville is terrible at protecting the ball, and has had it stolen away in almost 13% of its offensive possessions this year (318th in the country). This should be a good opponent for Duke to shake off the finals rust against and get back in the winning ways - the next win streak starts tonight.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Stephen Curry is Good: Catching Up on the Week that Was

To start, Stephen Curry single-handedly took down NC State on Saturday in a game made all the tougher for the Wildcats after a starting forward was ejected 4 minutes in. He went off for 44 points, including an enormously clutch three from way downtown and about 4 on the shot clock to put Davidson up 4 with just over a minute to play. He's averaging almost 32/game on the season and he got shut out against Loyola MD (thanks to Jimmy Patsos being a colossal idiot). In the six games where his teammates haven't been playing 4-on-3, his average is near 37. He is, without question, the best guard in the country.

Davidson's win over NC State took down a previously unbeaten team, which was a relatively common sight this week. When we last checked in, 29 teams had made it through November unblemished. Since then, another 12 teams have suffered losses. With just 3 remaining, the ACC no longer leads the way (Big East, 4).

Of course, one of the 12 dropping their first contest this week was our own Duke Blue Devils. Duke split a Big 10 road trip, looking very impressive (especially on D) in a win over Purdue and looking rather unimpressive (especially on D) in a loss to Michigan. First, the good. The Purdue game was a "vintage" Duke win, in which the Devils completely took the opponents out of what they wanted to do on offense. Duke hounded Purdue into difficult two-point jumpers, forced turnovers, and cleaned up the misses. They also overcame foul trouble in general (an early 6-1 deficit in the second half) and to key players (Smith and Zoubek, both of whom were on the floor when Duke was playing the best). Duke's shooting was only so-so, but they relentlessly attacked the glass to create second shots and avoid empty possessions. Here's the HD Box from Purdue:

Against Michigan, by contrast, Duke let the Wolverines dictate the style of play, particularly when the Devils had the ball. Michigan offered up open look after open look from the 3-point line, and Duke indulged itself, taking 33 attempts. The vast, vast majority of these were good shots - really wide open looks, plenty of time to get squared, not from too deep, etc. However, like most indulgences, there are times when it's really not good for you, and yesterday was one of those times. Duke could only hit 7 of 33 attempts (and even that number is somewhat misleading - Duke at one point was 3 of 27). After a cold shooting first half (2 of 18 from three) Duke came out in the first few minutes of the second half and earnestly tried to get the ball inside against the zone. The results were poor, and they went back to taking (and missing) wide open threes. When the defense created stops and Michigan went man, the offense shredded it. Duke picked Michigan's man defense apart on the inside, hitting 75% from 2 on the game. But they simply could not figure out an effective way to get the ball inside against the 1-3-1, and on a night when the shots were not falling it cost them.

Of course, even with the poor shooting, Duke was right there at the end. But the defense simply could not come up with necessary stops in the end game. After Duke led 53-50 Michigan went on a key 12-4 run over a 7 possession stretch and then finished with aplomb, hitting their final three field goals and 13 of 14 from the line in closing time. In all, Michigan scored on 15 of the game's final 18 possessions. That kind of finish will win a ball game just about any time.

Around the ACC

The ACC won yet another ACC/Big 10 challenge, although it did not look impressive in doing so (aside from UNC, Duke, and Wake, who all shredded their respective opponents). Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and Miami failed to hold the home court, FSU dropped a game by 14 to Northwestern (eek!), and Virginia, well, played bad. In a year where it looked like another 8-9 win week was in the offing, coming out 6-5 has to be considered a bit of a disappointment.

Several of the losing teams have already had the chance to bounce back (at least in a manner of speaking). Most notable was FSU, which beat Florida in a 57-55 brawl. Jordan Demercy hit some key threes and Solomon Alabi turned in his best performance of the year as the 'Noles assert state-school dominance in the Sunshine State. Virginia Tech held off a game Navy squad in the opening game of the BB&T (which Maryland closed out with a more emphatic win against GW), and Georgia Tech took down Vanderbilt by 12. Finally, Miami took to Rupp Arena and knocked off Kentucky by 9. The Wildcats may be down this year, but wins in Rupp are always good for the soul. Miami does have cause to be concerned, however, as Tuesday's loss to tOSU exposed how reliant the 'Canes are on Jack McClinton. If he's off (or if he decides to hit someone again) Miami could be in trouble.

ACC team and player stats are updated in the links to the right. Duke stats are still very outdated - I'll work on that for next weekend.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

ACC/Big 10 Challenge

Wisconsin beat Virginia Tech last night on a Trevon Hughes runner at the buzzer (well, close to) to frustrate a frantic Hokie comeback effort. This game played exactly to each school's style (the two teams are stylistically very similar) with one notable exception. It was sloooow - 54 possessions total. There were absolutely no turnovers - 6 for Wisconsin and 7 for Virginia Tech. But what was unusual was that the two teams were crazy good on offense. A 74-72 score may not look like a shootout, but in a 54 possession game, that's exceptional offensive performance - both teams had O Ratings in the 130s. Much of this was fueled by simply unconscious outside shooting, as the teams combined to hit 23 of 34 three point attempts.

So the Big 10 sneaks out to the early lead. Here are the 5 matchups tonight:

Ohio State at Miami - as profiled here, the Buckeye defense has been very impressive against lesser opponents. Can they hold down Miami's more potent offense (and even if they do, can they actually score enough to keep up)? My guess is no, and no.

Iowa at Boston College - Iowa has played precisely nobody on its way to a 6-1 record. Honestly, I can't even name a single person on the Hawkeye team. I feel out of touch. BC should control here, particularly if the Ty Rice from Friday's game (and really, from the second half of Friday's game) shows up.

Clemson at Illinois - Illinois has been under-the-radar very good this year, picking up a road win at Vanderbilt, which is very, very tough to do. Clemson has looked so-so so far, and hasn't really been challenged with a good opponent in a hostile environment. At least the all-orange Assembly Hall crowd will be in a friendly color, if not a friendly mood. Clemson is the better team, but I think Illinois walks away with the win.

Duke at Purdue - the marquee Tuesday game (and, in light of MSU's suckitude so far, probably the marquee challenge game, period). Like Virginia Tech-Wisconsin, these are two similarly-styled teams - small inside with versatile power forwards and talented guards that rely on defense to generate offense. Biggest non-conference game in West Lafayette in a long, long time - possibly since the Big Dog was roaming the halls. It will be interesting to see how the Devils react to the first hostile road environment of the season. Purdue is vulnerable inside, so if Thomas, Zoubek, and Plumlee can continue their collective effectiveness, that just might give Duke the extra push they need. I like the Devils in a close one.

Virginia at Minnesota - I have no idea if Minnesota is as good as their current 6-0 record, but I can tell you that Virginia absolutely deserves their 3-2. The Cavs played Syracuse very tough this weekend, though, and as Sylvan Landesberg and Sammy Zeglinski continue to get more and more comfortable at the college level, this team could surprise. At the very least, Leitao has two players who can collectively drop 50 on any given night. Their emergence, however, has led to an almost complete disappearance by senior Mamadi Diane, who will need to step his game up and provide some consistency for the nights when the young guns have their inevitable struggles.

Also, ACC Player and Team stats are up (not including the VT-Wisc game). More on what they are and what they mean later.