Saturday, January 31, 2009

Meet the Cavaliers

If there's one thing that's marked Dave Leitao's tenure at UVA, it's wildly random and inconsistent player usage. Aside from his top couple guys, he can't seem to figure out a rotation that he likes. During any given game, his players must just have no idea when they're getting in, how long they're staying in, or if they're getting in at all. Some examples: in his last 7 games, Jeff Jones has played 2, 11, 9, 0, 11, 0, and 14 minutes. In his last 7, Mamadi Diane has played 6, 10, 19, 25, 11, 17, 18. Assane Sene has gone 33, 16, 25, 25, 10, and 22 in his last 6. For his last 6, Jamil Tucker has gone 10, 23, 18, 26, 26, and 11. It's a constant process of mixing and matching, and it doesn't seem to be related to on court performance (Jones, for example, scored an efficient 6 points in 11 minutes against UNC, then never saw the court against Maryland).

As a result, Virginia doesn't really play well as a cohesive unit, particularly on the defensive side of the basketball. Virginia's hasn't held a conference opponent under a point per possession, letting teams post offensive ratings of 108.14, 107.03, 114.80, 117.65, and 105.53. It's worse than it looks, actually, as three of those performances were by teams at the bottom of the ACC in offense - FSU, Maryland, and Georgia Tech. Virginia has a very difficult time stopping teams from putting the ball in the hoop, especially from outside, where three ACC teams have shot 50% or better. Virginia also has a very difficult time taking the ball from opponents - they're last in steal rate at just 6.6%. Put it all together, and you get a defense that's currently ranked 10th, and likely to drop further the more they play against the upper offensive half of the conference.

Not that the Cavaliers are great shakes on offense either. Virginia is in the top half of the conference in just one offensive category - offensive rebounding, where they rank 6th. They come in at 10th in total shooting (7th on 2s, 11th on 3s), 9th in turnovers, and 10th in free throw frequency. All this combines together for an offense that has scored less than a point per possession in conference play and ranks 10th in the ACC.

Part of Virginia's struggle is due to a lack of experience. The Cavs start an all-freshman backcourt of Sylven Landesberg and Sammy Zeglinski. Zeglinski has had a particularly rude introduction to ACC play - in 5 games, he's scored just 25 points on 4-10 from 2 and a disastrous 4-24 from 3 (including just 1 of his last 16). He's also been turnover prone, coughing the ball up on a third of his possessions. Add it all up, and you get an offensive rating of 65.16, which is worst in the ACC, and worst by far for anyone who plays at least as many minutes (26/game) as he does. Landesberg has fared better, but has struggled with consistency. He dropped 20 at Virginia Tech, then managed just 2 against UNC and 7 against Maryland before bouncing back for 24 against FSU. He's Virginia's highest usage player and most frequent scorer. He's also a freshman coming into Cameron with 16 turnovers in his last 4 games. Of course, these two were supposed to get some help from Mamadi Diane, a senior wing who was Virginia's second-leading scorer last season. But his game has all but disappeared this year - after combining for 27 in the first two games, he hasn't hit double figures since, and has fallen out of the starting lineup. He has a very poor 82.55 offensive rating, and can no longer hit the broadside of a barn from outside. Last year his 3pt% was .414, this year it's .065. That's not a misprint - he's 2 for 31 on the season.

The backcourt bench has provided occasional sparks, but not reliable contributions. Mustapha Farrakhan (grandson of Louis) will jack up shots with frequency when he's in (27.65% shot rate) but he's hitting just .278 from 2 and is 2 for his last 13 from 3. Jeff Jones' minutes yo-yo has been discussed above, and his performance this year has been largely average. And Calvin Baker has been up and down as well. He had a total of 3 points in 58 minutes against Xavier, Brown, and Virginia Tech, then put up 11 and 16 on UNC and Maryland before dropping back to 6 against FSU.

The frontcourt is only slightly less young than the backcourt. Sophomore Mike Scott has been the Cavs most consistent player. Before the FSU game (2 points, 4 boards, 3 turnovers), he had a seven game run where he scored at least 11 and grabbed at least 5 boards, put up 4 double-doubles, and averaged 14.6 and 9. He does excellent work on the offensive glass - at 18.48% in ACC play, he's the conference's best offensive rebounder by a wide margin. Joining him up front is freshman Assane Sene, who is still extremely raw. He's in the top 10 in both defensive rebounding and shot blocking, but is a non-entity on offense, using just 11.5% of possessions and posting a 79.46 offensive rating. Backing up Scott and Sene is Jerome Meyinsse, who's even less of an offensive threat than Sene, using just 6.46% of possessions in confernce play.

The biggest surprise of the season so far has been the play of Jamil Tucker on the wing. Last season he averaged just 6 points a game in conference - he's doubling that total so far this year, and is actually scoring over a third of UVA's points when he's in the game. He's had highly efficient performances in almost every game, and paces Virginia with a 129.71 offensive rating in just over 21 min/game. Tucker's been propelled thus far by excellent three-point shooting - 10-19 in conference, for .526.

Tomorrow's game has all the ingredients for a blowout. A turnover-prone freshman backcourt making its first trip to Cameron. A relatively non-existent low-post presence aside from Scott, at least on offense. A defense that can't take the ball away and doesn't prevent scores well A coach who destroys player morale by yanking minutes around like they were toys. Barring someone getting ridiculously hot for Virginia, this game should go like many others this season - the offense struggles, and the D gives up a lot of points.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

ACC Roundup

Close games were all over the place, although none were close throughout. The five conference games were decided by a total of 21 points, but in each, one team held a double digit lead at one point in the second half. Three of those teams were winners - Carolina (which led by 13 with 15:02 to play), Wake (which led by 13 with 8:50 to play), and NC State (which led by 19 with 19:44 remaining). Of course, each of those three needed the breaks to fall just right to hold on for the win - UNC got the Edney-esque buzzer beater from Lawson, Wake got the travel on the rebound followed by a well-drawn inbounds play for the winning layup, and State got a whole host of good action - the tying layup by Costner, the steal and two freebies from Fells, and the game winning three in OT by Julius Mays. As for the other two, Maryland and Virginia Tech got destroyed in the second half by BC and Clemson, respectively. Maryland led by 13 with 19:02 to go, and then got outscored 47-25 down the stretch. For the Hokies, it was even worse. They led by 15 with 16:40 to play, and then got outscored 38-19 down the stretch, including a 21-1 run that completely turned the game around. So for those of you scoring at home, that's 5 games, 5 double-digit second half leads, all 5 of which were completely surrendered (even the teams that won tied with less than 5 seconds to play, and all won on last minute shots).

The games also featured some notable oddities, perhaps none greater than Tyler Hansbrough not shooting a single free throw in 26 minutes of playing time and scoring just 8 points. It was his first game without an FTA and the first under 10 points in what feels like forever. In tonight's game, KC Rivers and Malcolm Delaney got themselves on fire - Rivers went for 29 with 7-10 shooting on 3s, and Delaney topped him in the box score (though not in the W/L column) with 39 on 5-7 from 2, 6-9 from 3, and 9-10 at the line.

Several games this week were, shall we say, defensively challenged. Miami and NC State put up an 84-81 final in a game that went just 70 possessions (in 45 minutes no less). Clemson and the Hokies went 86-82 in a 68 possession game. Duke and Wake, by contrast, played outstanding defense, each holding the other to a season-low shooting performance and churning out a 70-68 final in a 77 possession game.

One of the reasons the games were so tight (and one thing we learned from this set of contests) is that teams were largely playing their peers. Duke, UNC, Wake, Clemson, FSU, and Virginia Tech are statistically the top 6 teams in conference play (in that order) and they all played each other. Miami, much hyped at the beginning of the year, is a lower division team right now (thanks to a conference-worst 112.09 defensive rating). Maryland, NC State, and BC are as well.

This weekend is essentially a complete flip. Again there are five games, but this time, four are upper division teams taking on lower division ones (only Miami-Maryland pits bottom feeders against each other; Clemson and FSU have Super Bowl weekend off). For Wake and Virginia Tech, their road games at poorer opponents (Georgia Tech and BC, respectively) are critical to further cementing their status as upper echelon teams. Wake really struggled in ACC road games last year, and had particular issues with the Yellow Jackets. To stay in contention for an ACC title and a 1-seed, these are absolutely the games they must win. For the Hokies, they need to collect wins in the soft part of their schedule to build as much cushion as possible for a brutal stretch run.

Finally, an interesting scheduling side note I noticed tonight - Duke plays three games in a row against teams coming off their "bye" week. Wake didn't play last weekend, Virginia (Sunday's opponent) didn't play this week, and Clemson (next Wednesday's foe) will sit this weekend. They've also already played FSU coming off of a week off. It's obviously just an odd quirk of the schedule, but Duke's is almost certainly more filled with bye-week opponents than any other team in the league. Not sure if it makes any difference (for Virginia, it certainly shouldn't), but it was interesting to see nonetheless.

Wake 70, Duke 68

I don't often say this after losses, but that was a fun game to watch. Those were two very, very good basketball teams playing very, very good defense. It was a matchup of two top-5 teams that looked like exactly that. Wake excelled at their signature defensive skill - making it exceedingly difficult for the opponent to put the ball in the basket. Duke shot just 18-44 from 2 and 4-22 from 3, and almost every single shot was contested. Duke, for their own part, held Wake to its worst offensive performance of the season. I was thoroughly impressed with Wake's half court and transition defense - they are both long and quick, and Johnson and Aminu in particular did a surprisingly good job against smaller, more agile players in Henderson and Singler. I thought Johnson was Wake's best player yesterday - he forced several turnovers, blocked several shots, scored an efficient 13 points, and dished out three assists without turning it over himself. He was a presence on both sides of the court, and the reason the Deacs won the game (and no, I'm not just making the obvious point that he hit the game winner).

For Duke, the game was defined by the struggle to hit shots. Even during the 20-9 run that the Devils went on to close the games, they shot just 5-14, and 2-6 from downtown. Their comeback was fueled much more by defense (holding Wake to 9 points over the game's last 18 possessions) than by offense. Duke's defensive strategy at the end was something that other teams are going to use against Wake this year if Ish Smith is in the game - we played a hybrid zone, with Nolan Smith essentially playing safety in the middle of the court to double whoever had the ball. It's the right tactic - there's no real reason to guard Ish out on the perimeter, and having him take shots (which he did, twice, missing) is the best result for an opponent.

On Wake's side of the ball, the game revealed one of the flaws with foregoing the three-pointer so willingly. Wake had four more scoring possessions than Duke did, but scored only 2 more points (and this was even on a night when Duke's outside shooting went cold). Their style requires them to convert possessions into scores more frequently than opponents, who can use outside shooting to compensate for slightly lower success in scoring each time down the court.

Individually, Singler and Henderson carried the team offensively, although Gerald actually had his worst offensive performance in ACC play, on the back of 7 (yes 7) turnovers. He's still not terribly strong with his handle, and has a bit of a tendency to dribble into traffic and get stripped. But he hit some clutch shots throughout the game (reverse dunk and a foul, anyone?), none bigger than the silky smooth jumper to tie it up with 10 seconds left. Zoubek disappointed a bit - he held his own on defense, creating an obstacle for Wake to deal with in the paint, but couldn't convert at all offensively against big, athletic players. He missed all three of his shots, two on blocks (and honestly, I think the box score may be wrong on the third - I seem to recall that one being blocked too).

Smith and McClure turned in the top performances for +/- purposes, and it was all from defense. Duke held Wake to 38 points in 49 possessions when Dave was in the game, and 28 in 38 when Nolan was in (the two played 25 possessions together, during which Wake scored just 15 points). Dave in particular played superb - he checked everyone on Wake's end from Teague to McFarland, and few came away with points. While he was at it, he smothered the boards, picking up 12 rebounds and helping Duke hold Wake well below its average for offensive rebounding.

Here's the HD Box from last night's game:

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Meet the Demon Deacons

Credit Dino Gaudio. He figured out what his team was good at (making 2s). He recognized what they were not good at (making 3s). And, most importantly, he got the team to buy in. Last year's team was terrible from behind the arc (~32%), but took nearly 20 a game. Missed threes hurt the Deacs a lot last year. Principally guilty were Harvey Hale (45-153) and James Johnson (28-100). Johnson's three 3s a game were especially bad, because it took him away from what he does best, which is going to the basket and scoring inside. A guy like him simply should not be taking 30% of his shots from beyond the arc.

This season, the Deacs are no better at shooting the 3 - just 33% in their first 17 games. But they've improved on offense because they no longer take so many - they average a paltry 12 attempts per game, and have topped 20 (last year's season average) just once. Johnson has cut his attempts almost in half, LD Williams has gone from 33.8% of shots being 3s to 24.3%, and Wake has replaced Jamie Skeen (who took over half his shots from beyond the arc but hit just 33%) with Al-Farouq Aminu (who shoots just 11.3% of his shots from downtown and scores at a 60% clip inside the arc). In conference play, Wake is getting just 14% of their points from 3, which is not only last in the league by a full standard deviation (no one else gets fewer than 20% from deep), it's last in the country. 344 teams lace up their Converse All-Stars every week (what? that's not what the kids are wearing these days? huh), and 343 of them shoot the three more frequently than the Deacs.

In a college game that focuses so heavily on the three point shot, one might think Wake is putting itself at an offensive disadvantage. After all, a team only needs to his 33.3% of their threes to be as efficient as if they his 50% of their 2s. Shying so strongly away from the three point line seems to be like surrendering free points. But Wake has thrived by pushing everything in their offense toward the hoop. Despite poor and infrequent outside shooting, they lead the conference in EFG%, PPWS, 2fg%, and free throw rate. Wake's success inside is directly attributable to two factors: talented size, and Jeff Teague.

As for the first, Wake unquestionably has the best front line in the ACC, if not the country (I think only UCONN and Louisville could come close - and yes, I'm aware of the Green, Hansbrough, Thompson lineup in Chapel Hill). In Johnson and Aminu, Wake has two 6'9" forwards who can score face up or back to the basket and can put the ball on the deck and get to the rim. In Chas McFarland, they have a legitimate 7-footer with rather nifty post moves and a penchant for pounding the glass - 39th in the nation and 4th in the ACC (2nd in conference-only play) in offensive rebounding percentage (side note: if he played sufficient minutes to qualify, Zoubek would be 5th nationally and 1st in conference). The three have feasted inside, combining for .566 shooting from 2, as well as more than 12 free throw attempts a game.

As for the second, Jeff Teague has simply been a revelation. So far this season, there's nothing he hasn't done well. Shoot 2? Check - 89-164 for .543. Shoot 3? Check - .531 on 48 attempts. Get to the line? Check - he draws 7 fouls per 40 minutes and has the 106th best FT Rate in the country. He's already taken 41 free throws in conference play, and he didn't attempt a single one against the Hokies. Distribute? Check - he assists on 23.5% of his teammate's scores. Operate at high efficiency and high usage? Check - he's 3rd in the ACC and 11th in the country in offensive rating among high usage players (behind only Hansbrough and McClinton). Create takeaways? Check - 147th in the nation in steal percentage and 5th in the ACC. He's been the conference's best guard, and is not far behind, if at all behind, James Harden, Jodie Meeks, and Stephen Curry for best in the country.

Joining Teague in the starting backcourt is LD Williams. As noted above, he had a serious three-habit last season that he seems to have largely kicked. He goes to the basket with great efficiency now - surprisingly enough, he has the highest 2fg% among all the Deacons - better than Teague and the three big guys. Williams has also relished the role of defensive stopper.

Which brings me to the bigger point - while Wake's offense is much improved, and is justifiably drawing the appropriate oohs and ahhs, this team has made its bones on the defensive side of the court. Wake simply makes it hard for teams to score. Their efg% against is 5th in the country and best in the ACC. So is their 3fg% against. Their 2fg% against is "just" 18th in the country and second in the ACC (to FSU - obvious side note - it's hard to shoot 2s against big teams). Wake blocks a full 15% of the opponents' shots (14th in the country, 3rd in the ACC) - Johnson, Aminu, and McFarland are all in the top 250 nationally. Their defense is strikingly similar to Florida State's, and we saw how that went for Duke.

The dirty little secret behind this Wake team, though, is that they're extremely starter dependent. Aside from Ish Smith (who's essentially a 6th starter), the bench has played just 111 of the 800 possible conference minutes, and scored just 23 points. The starting five for Wake scores 88% of the team's points. When one or more get limited action (as we saw last week during the first half when Aminu was getting stitches and Johnson was in foul trouble), their scoring suffers. The drop off from the first 5 to the first guy off the bench is huge. All the starters have produced at least a point per possession used in ACC play thus far. The offensive ratings for the 5 bench players? 77.47, 89.46, 58.11, 67.48, and 89.21. Yech.

For Wake to win tomorrow, they need to do what they've done all season - relentlessly attack the basket, draw fouls, and make it very hard for Duke to put the ball in the basket. Size mismatches will abound in this game - for probably 20-25 minutes (Zoubek has yet to play 20 minutes in a game, although if ever there was a time ...), the tallest Devil on the court will be 6'8" - shorter than all three frontcourt starters for Wake. Which obviously creates matchup problems on both ends of the court - Johnson and Aminu will have to work very, very hard to guard Singler and Henderson. Also, Jeff Teague and Ish Smith have been turnover prone in ACC play, coughing it up on 22 and 32 percent of their possessions used, respectively. Wake needs to prevent Duke from getting free looks at the hoop in transition off of turnovers in order to assert themselves defensively.

Tomorrow's game features two extremely talented teams with a marked contrast in personnel and style of play. Both love playing defense, and both have had their issues on offense. Both really want the win - Wake to prove it's a top team this year, and Duke to rebuff any residual "yeah, but who have they played?" talk. It should be a fun one in Winston tomorrow night, and one I'm very much looking forward to.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

What to Make of Virginia Tech

We're three weeks into the ACC season, and the surprise so far has to be the Hokies. They've shot out to a 4-1 record and have two road wins against upper division teams, including handing the Deacs their first loss. Still, they've been outscored on the conference season (-25 against Duke, +23 combined in their four wins, although they hold a positive efficiency margin thanks to having 6 more defensive possessions than offensive) and are only a few weeks removed from a thoroughly unimpressive non-conference slate where they lost to every team they played that was better than they were (and even one or two - Georgia, Seton Hall - that are worse).

So far, the reason for their success has been offense. After being dismantled by Duke in the ACC opener to the tune of a 70.18 offensive rating, Tech has put up four performances of 107, 120, 112, and 121. As is traditional with Seth Greenberg teams, they don't cough the ball up - only 17.7% of their possessions end in turnovers, and that number is even skewed downward by an aberrant 28% performance against Duke. Their ability to hold onto the ball has been key - in non-turnover possessions, VT has the 7th best offense in the ACC, but when all possessions are included, they jump to 4th. They've also been solid with their interior scoring - 50% from 2 in ACC play and 56% in their last three games. Overall, Tech's converted well from the field - their .511 efg% is second only to Wake. This seems unlikely to last. They've actually been better shooting the ball in conference than out, despite playing better opponents.

Leading the charge has been the Hokies' big three, who all have been playing exceptional basketball of late. Delaney, Vassallo, and Allen have combined for 276 of the Hokies' 367 ACC points. Delaney and Vassallo in particular have excelled. The sophomore point guard scores 32% of Tech's points, and has put up a 114.73 offensive rating while using over 27% of the possessions. The senior 2 has had slightly less usage (23.31% of possessions) but been even more efficient, posting a 120.23 offensive rating. In the four conference wins, Vassallo is 23 of 39 from 2 and 9 of 23 from 3 - that's lights out shooting.

The question now is whether this is sustainable. There are plenty of dubious signs - this is, in many ways, a run driven by hot shooting, which has a tendency to revert to the mean. VT doesn't do the other things (rebound, shoot free throws) well enough to overcome a poor shooting night. Plus, with so much pressure on Allen, Delaney, and Vassallo, the inability of their teammates to play at even an adequate level could prove problematic. However, there are positive signs as well, first and foremost being the schedule. The Hokies' next 6 games look like this: Clemson, @ BC, NCSU, Georgia Tech, @ Maryland, @ Virginia. Aside from the Clemson game (which is in Blacksburg), that's a list of the worst teams in conference. It's entirely possible that they could be staring a 9-2 record in the face after their trip to Charlottesville. The finish gets tougher: FSU, @ Clemson, Duke, UNC, @FSU. And thanks to the pre-conference performance, 9-7 could put the Hokies on the wrong side of the bubble, particularly if their last 5 games feature 3 or 4 losses. But all of a sudden, the Hokies, despite again performing poorly before the calendar turns, have made themselves relevant in conference play. If they keep stealing upsets and holding court at home, they could be one of the most surprising NCAA tournament teams of the season.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Duke 85, Maryland 44

It's very difficult to say this about a 41-point win, but the final score of this game was deceptively close. Maryland was down 66-23 when Duke's bench came on as a unit with 13 minutes to play. To that point, the Devils were 1.6 points per minute better than the Terps - on pace for a 64-point victory. If the starters had stayed on the court (note: not something I'm advocating), I have no doubt the final margin would have been somewhere in that neighborhood. The offensive and defensive efficiency from our top 8 during the first 27 minutes was similarly exceptional - 140.43 and an astoundingly ridiculous 48.94, for a margin of 91.49, meaning Duke gained a point on its lead almost every single possession. Actually (as shown in the HD Box below), when Henderson or Zoubek were in, Duke was more than a full point per possession better than the Terps. Whoo.

This was as thoroughly dominant a defensive performance as I've seen in a long time. Maryland never looked comfortable. They coughed it up a ton, they missed everything from the field, and they had absolutely no offensive rebounding presence. Again, the final numbers are a bit deceptive - before the bench unit came in, Duke had grabbed 22 of 26 Maryland misses, as well as an astounding 18 of 30 Duke misses. 27 minutes into the game, and Duke led the rebounding battle 40-16. Duke contests absolutely everything - simple handoffs or reset passes are not simple against the Devils, and Singler, Smith, and Scheyer in particular love gunning for takeaways on plays like that.

The game was largely out of reach at the half (Duke's 3rd sub-20 point defensive half and 4th ACC game where an opponent went 20 consecutive minutes without scoring 20 points), but those of us who have seen Duke slack off with big leads at time this year were wondering if the intensity would be sustained. The Devils emphatically answered yes, scoring on each of the half's first 11 possessions and racking up a 26-8 run that broke Maryland's spirit. The highlight for the run were the back-to-back breakaway scores - an alley-oop to Singler followed by a Henderson steal that led to 3 leaping fastbreak passes finished off by a Henderson layup and foul.

Brian Zoubek had a great impact game - 9 points, 7 offensive rebounds, 3 assists, 4 blocks, no turnovers. He's done an excellent job cutting down his turnovers this season - just 4 in ACC play from a guy who spent his first two seasons as a bit of a walking turnover. His impact on the Devils this year has been very noticeable - when he's on the court, Duke has an efficiency margin of 49.26 and a defensive rating of 72.26, both best on the squad. He's played about 37% of Duke's possessions, and the team is +236 - in the other 63% of Duke's possessions, Duke is "just" +160. Not surprisingly, Duke's rebounding numbers (both offense and defense) and shot blocking numbers are best when Brian is in.

Finally, extended minutes for Williams, Plumlee, Pocius, and Czyz showed why they don't get extended minutes in other games. They looked extremely disjointed on offense and (aside from shot-blocking) thoroughly average on defense. In the final 13 minutes of the game, the bench as a whole (not just those guys) was outscored by 2. There's clear talent in these guys, but the readiness isn't quite there. That said, it's nice to have 9th, 10th, and 11th options like Williams, Plumlee, and Pocius - makes me worry much less if one or more of the top 8 gets hurt or in foul trouble.

Around the ACC

Virginia and NC State are starting to separate themselves from the middle of the ACC and join Georgia Tech on the bottom. For the Cavs, the defense just isn't there, something that must drive Dave Leitao crazy. His first Virginia team stayed competitive despite talent deficits due to tenacious defense. This edition has similar talent deficits but isn't showing the same intensity on the defensive end. They've given up over a point per possession to every conference opponent and have a very poor 111 defensive rating. For FSU, Toney Douglas was again great and the team finally got some outside shots to fall.

The Pack got absolutely killed on the glass against BC - the Eagles got almost 60% of their own misses. NCSU has given up more than 1.2 points per possession in the last two games. Today, their offense topped a point per possession for the first time in ACC play, but it was far from enough to get it done. And aside from Ben McCauley and Tracy Smith (who excelled today), the team isn't getting efficient offense from anyone.

Meet the Terrapins

It's been an up and down season for the Terrapins so far. Aside from a 6 game span against, well, less than adequate competition (GW, Delaware State, American, Bryant, Elon, Charlotte), their offense seems to trade good and bad performances - 121.26 against Michigan St, 76.56 against Georgetown, 120 against Michigan, 80 against Morgan State. Their conference performance has followed that same trend of inconsistency (does that mean they've been consistently inconsistent? does that even work? hmmm) - 80.07 against Georgia Tech, 103.72 at Miami, 91.22 at Florida State, and then 117.65 against Virginia. Unfortunately for them, their defense and offense can't seem to get on the same page - the defense against Georgia Tech and FSU was very good while the offense was bad, and vice versa against Miami and UVA.

Maryland's had two big problems this season. The first is shooting. On the season, this is the worst shooting team in the ACC. The struggles have continued in conference play - just 46.1% from two and 28.9% from three. Grievis Vasquez has particularly struggled - 37% from two and just 19% from three. The second problem for Maryland has been rebounding. This is directly related to size - no one over 6'8" plays any significant minutes, and Landon Milbourne (they're starting 4) is really a wing. In conference play, Adrian Bowie (a 6'2" guard) has been their second-best rebounder (and best on the defensive glass).

Bowie has had a really nice start to conference play. In something I thought I'd never see, he's used more possessions than Vasquez in the first four games - 27% against 25%. Bowie has been very strong going to the basket, hitting 66.7% of his twos. All three guards are strong distributors - Bowie, Vasquez, and Eric Hayes all assist on more than 20% of their teammates' field goals. As for scoring style, Bowie and Vasquez are slashers, where Hayes is a spot-up shooter - he's the only Terp hitting better than 30% from 3 in ACC play.

Landon Milbourne has been decent playing out of position on the front line - he's their best offensive rebounder, and a strong slasher to the basket. But he's struggled with turning the ball over all season, and is prone to disappear against better teams - against Michigan State, Georgetown, Gonzaga, Georgia Tech, and Miami, he averages just barely over 6/game. Maryland needs more from him more reliably. His starting frontcourt mate is Dave Neal. Credit Neal for working hard to turn himself into an ACC starter. The problem is, he's not an ACC-caliber starter, and is particularly unsuited to playing "center." He doesn't rebound, he can't score back to the basket, and his shooting is only ok.

Off the bench, Maryland has struggled to get production. Sean Mosley, a major prospect from Baltimore, has taken the role of sixth man reasonably well, although he's very turnover prone. Cliff Tucker has played himself from the starting lineup into getting barely 5 minutes a game. Dino Gregory and Braxton Dupree provide a little bit of size, but neither rebounds or scores very well.

This team is not one of Gary Williams' best. Making the NCAA tournament would be considered a big upset. So would beating Duke at Duke.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Duke 51, NC State 30

What's that you say? The score above is incorrect? There was a first half to this game? Bah!

The similarities between last season's game against the Pack in Cameron and Tuesday's tilt were eerie. Like last year, the first half was sputtering, and the second half was offensive dominance. This year, Duke scored on 22 of 31 second half possessions (including 12 of the last 14), missing just 6 shots from the field in the half. The Devils also committed just 4 second half turnovers, and just 2 in the last 25 possessions. It was an excellent offensive performance, and the first time in conference play Duke has put together a 20 minute stretch of good offense.

In a way, this was a game of bookends. Duke won the beginning and end of the game by a total of 25-4, amassed over 21 possessions (during which State committed 10 of their 19 turnovers). If you extend that just a bit to cover the first half of the first half and the second half of the second half, it's a slightly less impressive but still dominant 42-18. Which means, of course, that in the middle 20 minutes, NCSU outplayed Duke to the tune of 38-31.

Duke's defense was again strong (although not great). They forced a lot of turnovers - nearly one every three possessions. It took almost 2:30 minutes before the Pack even got off a shot. But the defensive rebounding was again poor (just 50%) and the poor rebounding contributed to NCSU hitting over 50% of their 2s, an unusual performance against the Devils this year.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the small lineup collectively posted almost all the + results for Duke's +/-. Singler was never the biggest guy on the court until he subbed in for Lance with 12:30 to go and Duke down 2. From that point on, Kyle played "center" exclusively and Duke went on a 30-11 run to close out the game. I'm not sure if that's meaningful, but against certain teams, it's clear that K likes the McClure-Singler frontcourt combo. That combo clearly has its weaknesses, though - NCSU got 8 of 12 available offensive rebounds over the last 12:30. Actually, the presence (or lack thereof) of Zoubek on the court dictated how well State rebounded. When he was in, Duke got 7 of 19 offensive rebounds and 9 of 11 defensive rebounds. When he was out, those numbers were 3 of 12 and a shockingly poor 6 of 19. Z only picked up 4 defensive rebounds on the game, but clearly the presence of a 7 footer made it harder for the Pack to crash the boards.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Meet the Wolfpack

Thus far this season, NC State has beaten precisely the teams they should be beating, and has lost to the teams that should beat them. The Pack was highly competitive against Davidson, Marquette, and Florida, dropping those three games by a total of 10 points. But they still came away 0-3. ACC play has been no change from this pattern - losses to Clemson and Florida State, and only a home win over Georgia Tech (in overtime) on the plus side of the column.

On the inside, Brandon Costner and Ben McCauley have largely returned to their 2006-07 form. The presence of JJ Hickson clearly interfered with their play last year, and it's both to their discredit that they couldn't find a way to coexist and to their credit that they successfully bounced back. McCauley has had the better year - his offensive rating is an excellent 123.64 (120.14 in conference) and his passing skills continue to excel, leading the team in assists and assist rate. Costner has been more "prolific" - he's used 29.39% of possessions on the season and an astonishing (and league leading) 32.34% in conference. In ACC play, that high usage has not benefitted his team - Costner's offensive rating is just 90.43, and he turns the ball over on 27% of the (many) possessions he uses.
Off the bench, Tracy Smith has been notable in his high usage - 33.41% of possessions on the season, and he's the Pack's fourth (and almost third) leading scorer in just under 13 minutes per game.

In the backcourt, Courtney Fells got off to a hot start, but has been derailed by an injury that caused him to miss nearly 3 games and has slowed his production since. He leads the team in minutes in conference, but is only using 15% of possessions and his offensive production has greatly struggled. Injuries have been the story of the season for the Pack - Fells, Trevor Ferguson, and Javi Gonzalez have all missed time. Julius Mays has been pressed into point guard duty, and hasn't handled it well in ACC play, turning the ball over nearly 38% of his possessions. Farnold Degand (who's had his own injury history) has similarly been turnover prone at the point, with nearly 39% of his possessions used ending up in the hands of his opponents. Simply put, the NC State backcourt is turnover prone, and not the strong point for this team.

This NC State team is better than those of the last two years, but it has many of the same problems. They turn the ball over a ton, but don't take it away from opponents - -42 in turnover margin on the season and -13 in just 3 ACC games. They're relatively weak on the defensive glass. And they're poor at field goal defense. All these things have resulted in too many easy opportunities for opponents and too many wasted possessions on offense. Against Duke, at Duke, being turnover prone will be a huge problem.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Duke 76, Georgetown 67

Saturday's game was a great barometer game for Duke. They took the best shot from a legitimate top 10-15 opponent, all game long, and had an answer at every turn. The Devils executed well on offense all night, scoring 76 points in just 65 possessions. They hit their shots - 54% on 2s, 38% on 3s, and 12 of 13 free throws - they avoided turnovers, and they got to the offensive glass when they needed to - 42% of offensive rebounds in the second half.

Once again, Gerald Henderson led the way on offense. Over the last several games, he's been playing on another level - it's something we've seen glimpses of in the past, but never on this much of a sustained level. He had more than 30% of Duke's points when he was on the court, and put up a stellar offensive rating with high usage. Singler had a bit of a rough offensive game, but was stellar on defense and especially on the glass. He pulled down half of Duke's rebounds on the afternoon, excelling at both the offensive and defensive end. His temper got the better of him when Omar Wattad (whose "style" of play was designed to bait players all night, and infuriated me) goaded him into the intentional foul, but aside from that, he played a solid game.

And then there's Paulus. He finally had a game where he looked like the Paulus of last season. He hit from outside (including a dagger from 25' at the top of the key to put the Devils up 12) and played very heady defense. The strip of Dejuan Summers under the basket, the pressure defense on the perimeter - he earned his 15 second half minutes, and produced extremely well. Paulus led the team in +/- for the game at +13, largely from being on court for the game-changing 11-0 run at the end of the first half. If he can turn in this kind of performance for the remainder of the season, it will be a huge asset for the Devils.

Speaking of +/-, here's the HD Box from Saturday's game:

Tomorrow I'll have a "Meet NC State" post, plus the ACC tempo-free stats up for all the ACC teams in conference-only play (being about 20-25% of the way through the season, there's enough to be plausibly meaningful).

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Duke 70, Georgia Tech 56

Three ACC games, three wins, and most impressively, three games during which the opponents scored fewer than 20 points in a 20 minute stretch. Against Virginia Tech and Florida State, it was easy to tell as there were full half scores in the teens. Against Georgia Tech, the stretch spanned the two halves. Alade Aminu made a bucket for Tech's 25th point with 7:11 to go in the first half. With 4:35 showing on the clock in the second half, the Jackets had 44 (one second later, Maurice Miller hit one of his 3 threes to cross the 20-point threshold). 22 1/2 minutes, 33 possessions, 19 points, good for a 57.58 D rating. Three games into the season, and opponents simply can't score against Duke, putting up just .79 points per possession.

Which is a good thing, because the offense is still somewhat a work in progress. Lots of one-on-one play, lots of missed jumpers, and just a general appearance of disjointedness at times. The end results have been alright - an offensive rating of 103.54 for the three games - but getting there has been a little bit of a struggle. Henderson continues to assert himself - there was a point with about 6:00 to play in the game where he demanded the ball on the wing, then waved everyone away for a clearout, and hit a ridiculous side-fading jumper over a 6'9" guy (I think Peacock). Singler continues to be all over the place - he did excellent work on the offensive glass. And Scheyer overcame a bad shooting night with 5 assists against no turnovers and solid work getting to and converting from the line.

Overall, you can put me in the camp of being not too concerned. The team is still adjusting to conference play, and adjusting to the size and physicality of the opponents, which has been hugely different from teams like FSU and Georgia Tech than we saw in the pre-conference season. From what I've seen, the team has the talent and versatility on offense to make the necessary adjustments, and I think we'll see that come over the next few games.

Here's the HD Box:

Around the ACC
Last season, Wake went to Boston College and got housed. The Eagles put up 112 and won by 39. The Deacs went into this trip to Conte Forum with a chip on their shoulder, and it showed. They jumped all over BC and never looked back, coasting to a 20 point win that really wasn't that close. Teague again was excellent - in his last 5 games, he's put up offensive ratings of 134, 131, 157, 165, and 124 while using 23.36% of the team's possessions. That's high usage, ridiculously high efficiency offense. Wake may not be the best team in the country, but if they win at Littlejohn (far from a foregone conclusion), they might be most deserving of a #1 vote.

Miami and Maryland, for some reason, play memorable games, at least to me. A couple years ago, they had the single worst combined offensive performance I can recall in the ACC (much worse, if it can be believed, than the Maryland-Georgia Tech stinkfest last weekend). Last night's game was another memorable one, but not in the way that Terp fans would like. Maryland controlled the entire game - they never trailed in the first half, took a 12-point lead into the break, and led by 17 with under 12:00 to go. From that point, the Canes closed out on a 27-8 run in 16 possessions - ridiculous offensive and defensive efficiency for Miami - capped off with a big 3 from Jack McClinton. Maryland was especially hurt by three straight turnovers from Adrian Bowie that helped Miami swing from down 4 to up by 1 without Maryland getting off a shot. Bonus pace note - even though the final score was 62-60, it was not a defensive struggle. It was just an extremely slow game (just 57 possessions) and the respective offensive ratings were 108.25 and 103.72.

Carolina finally got that elusive first conference win, facing a Virginia team that was simply overmatched. The Tar Heels still didn't really shoot well (except from the line), but they capitalized on easy transition opportunities and really cold shooting by the home team to coast to a win. Virginia missed 57 shots and was just 4-27 from beyond the arc. Mamadi Diane continued his senior season disappearing act - last season he averaged almost 12/game and played nearly 30 minutes per. This year, he's playing less than 20 mpg, has scored a total of just 59 points, and has an atrocious 79.26 offensive rating.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Meet the Yellow Jackets

Georgia Tech has had a rough go of things so far this season. Some ugly non-conference losses (at home to Penn St. and Illinois-Chicago, at USC by about 20) and an 0-2 record to start ACC play (good enough to tie the Heels for last place in conference - ah, that's fun to write while it lasts) suggest that this team may be lucky to get post-season play past the ACC tourney. Like the Seminoles, Georgia Tech has really struggled on offense so far this year. They've failed to hit a point per possession in over half their games and have posted offensive ratings below 90 in four games, including the last two. After FSU's performance against NC State tonight, the Jackets are now statistically the worst offense in the ACC.

Georgia Tech's woes largely come from shooting and turnovers. On the shooting side, this is a team that simply can't score outside of the paint. They shoot a respectable .498 on 2s, but just .289 from 3s and .589 from the line, both last in the ACC. As a result, they score a higher percentage of their points from 2 than any other team in the league, which is not the most efficient way to go about offense. The Jackets have also struggled holding onto the ball, epitomized by the performance against Maryland on Saturday, when they had 18 turnovers in the first half alone.

On defense, the Jackets are better. Only four teams have scored over a point per possession, and only two (Penn St. and Alabama) have really shredded them. The Jackets play good field goal defense, are decent at forcing turnovers, and are excellent at keeping their opponents off the glass.

Tech is led by super-soph Gani Lawal. He uses over 25% of the possessions, and is the Jackets' leading scorer and rebounder. He scores over 30% of Tech's points and gathers an impressive 22% of available defensive rebounds while he's on the court. Lawal has dramatically improved his turnover rate, but his poor free throw shooting (just 54.5%) keeps him from being a highly efficient offensive player. Joining him on the front line is senior Alade Aminu (older brother of Wake's Al-Farouq Aminu). Aminu's had a breakout senior season, becoming the Jackets' second-leading scorer to go along with strong rebounding and shot-blocking. He shoulders the second largest share of scoring and is the most efficient offensive performer of Tech's starters. Like Lawal, his Achilles heel is the free throw line, although he's also more susceptible to turnovers than his front-court mate. Starting at the wing is Zach Peacock. Peacock came to school as a jump shooting center and has gradually improved his handling and quickness to enable him to play on the perimeter. He's run hot and cold all season, with a tendency to disappear (4 games of 5 points or less). On balance, he's a thoroughly average player, capable of big offensive performances, but equally capable of being a non-factor.

Tech's frontcourt has been the team's strength. The backcourt, well, that's another story. Tech is cursed with two players who are offensive black holes on the perimeter. One is freshman point guard Iman Shumpert, who's been handed the reins since day one and largely struggled. He turns the ball over on almost 30% of his possessions, and is a very poor shooter (45.1% on 2s, 30.6% on 3s, and 63.5% on FTs). His offensive rating is 91.16, which is bad in general, and especially bad when you consider his high usage. No one who uses as great a share of his team's possessions (23.36%) is as inefficient on offense. Actually, he's rivalled in his combination of inefficiency and high usage only by Lewis Clinch. Clinch is an abject lesson in not relying only on counting stats - his 14 ppg average loks alright on its face, but he's had to take 110 shots to get his 113 points. 5 of his 8 games have featured offensive ratings under 85. On the season, he's got a 92.02 rating while using 23.26% of Tech's possessions. Simply put, these guys actively hurt their team on the offensive end.

The bench for Tech is thin, and made moreso by the loss of senior D'Andre Bell for the season. Maurice Miller is now the 6th man, losing his spot in the starting lineup to injury and the return of Lewis Clinch. He's been a terrible shooter thus far - barely 40% on 2s and a woeful 0-21 from 3, for a .255 efg% that's by far the worst in the league. Lance Storrs, Nick Foreman, and Brad Sheehan are all extremely low usage guys. Storrs essentially does little but turn the ball over - 23 in just 78 possessions used. Foreman, like Miller, is a poor shooter - just .294 from 2, but his extreme turnover avoidance makes him relatively efficient, if super-low usage - he's the least involved offensive player in the ACC, even less so than Dave McClure. Finally, Sheehan is a big body - he's a 7 footer - who doesn't do big man things. He's not a good rebounder, he doesn't block shots, and he's not a good interior scorer.

All told, this very well might be the least talented team Paul Hewitt has ever put on the court. Nonetheless, their defensive effort has kept them in games this year, and they'll try to win with defense again tomorrow night. Even if their defense plays well tomorrow, it's hard to imagine this Tech team having a breakthrough offensive performance against this Duke defense.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Duke 66, Florida State 58

Florida State played an excellent defensive game, with the exception of 12 possessions to open the second half. During that span, Duke went on a 24-5 run that essentially put the game out of reach (although the Noles would do their best to claw back into it). As a brief aside, Duke's bursts out of the gate in the second half of late have been encouraging - the last three games have featured runs of 24-5, 14-3, and 25-9. Today, that brief lapse hid, somewhat, the overall performance by FSU. The Noles' length and ball pressure really bothered Duke (Nolan Smith especially, as he had 7 turnovers) and helped them hold the Devils to 42 points in 56 possessions outside of the second half opening run.

Thankfully, Duke matched FSU's defensive intensity throughout the game and forced the Noles into an equally futile (if not moreso) offensive effort. FSU scored only 14 points in the first half, and despite crushing the boards to get 14 of 27 available offensive rebounds could only make 7 buckets. In case you're scoring at home (or, with apologies to Keith Olbermann, even if you're alone), Duke had a consecutive stretch of 40 minutes against ACC opponents during which it gave up just 27!!! points in 58 possessions, good for a 46.55 defensive rating. That's, um, ridiculously good defense. The versatility of the Devils' defense is remarkable - they've effectively neutralized screens except off of Zoubek, as K is comfortable with everyone else switching onto a ball-handler. And they're just all over the court - it's really fun to watch them move and communicate on the defensive end.

On offense, Gerald Henderson had a bit of a breakout game. He carried Duke during a first half in which everyone else was bad, and hit some key shots down the stretch to keep the cushion at least relatively comfortable and deflate FSU's valiant attempt at a comeback. His explosiveness is fun to watch - the catch on the Smith lob was simply amazing.

If there are concerns coming out of this game, it's the sudden disappearance of the bench, not in terms of minutes, but in terms of contribution. Paulus, Thomas, Williams, and McClure combined for just 3 points, a collective -9 in +/-, and not one of them had an offensive rating of even 70. That's a very negative sign, and one that will need to be reversed.

Around the ACC

Maryland beat Georgia Tech in a sloppy, ugly affair. The game cleared 80 possessions but neither team cleared 70 points - Maryland because it couldn't shoot and Tech because it couldn't hold on to the ball. The Jackets finished with 28 turnovers, which included 18 in the first half. All those turnovers kept Maryland in the game and ultimately allowed them to complete the comeback and get the win despite the fact that no one on the Terps' roster produced at least one point per possession used today. Maryland missed 50 shots, got just 9 offensive rebounds, and won by 7. Go figure.

Clemson pulled away from NCSU doing what they always do to the Pack - force turnovers. The Tigers recorded steals on over 18% of NCSU's possessions and the total forced TO number was over 27%. Clemson's offense didn't play particularly well, especially outside of Trevor Booker, who had a monster game with 23, 6, and 6 blocks.

Virginia Tech beat Virginia in Blacksburg behind huge performances from AD Vassallo and Malcolm Delaney. The two combined for 53 of Tech's 78 points. For Virginia, Sylven Landesberg acquitted himself quite well in his first conference rivalry game and Mustapha Farrakhan tossed in 17 in just 12 minutes, but the lack of defense doomed the Cavs yet again - Virginia has already let teams clear a point per possession in 8 games this year, and is just 3-5 in those contests.

Finally, the U lived up to its billing as the Harvard of Florida (note: I completely made that up) by following in the Crimson's footsteps to pick up a win at BC. The 'Canes used a very well-balanced offensive attack that saw 5 players hit double figures. The teams had very similar performances with one key exception that made all the difference - Miami did alright knocking down 2s (41%) and BC did not (39%). BC was really hurt by foul trouble to Corey Raji, who was limited to just 9 minutes. He's BC's most efficient offensive threat by far, with a 132.39 rating, and he did his team no favors while sitting on the bench.

Catching Up

I was out and on the road for two weeks during the holidays this year, and fell behind a bit. During that time, Duke took down two opponents with two impressive defensive showings (and, during my catch-up time, they beat Davidson too). Here are the HD Boxes from the three games I missed, along with some scattered commentary.

Duke v. Loyola MD

A comfortable NYE blowout against an overmatched opponent with a showman coach. Only disheartening note was bench play - Plumlee, Pocius, and Thomas each played about a quarter of the game, during which Duke played Loyola to essentially a tie. Bonus note: building on the "Meet Duke" profile from last week, the team won a game hitting just 1 three-pointer (and attempting just 12).

Duke v. Virginia Tech

In the second half, the Hokies scored just 13 points on 28 possessions, including just 4 in the final 13. For the half, they shot just 6-18, committed 10 turnovers, got only 2 of 13 offensive rebounds, and went just 1-3 from the line. That's dominant defense across all 4 factors. Singler and Henderson had very nice games on offense - for Singler, 6 turnovers were the only blemish in a line that featured 19 points on 11 shots with 7 assists and 8 boards (5 offensive). If Kyle could just cut his turnovers a bit, he would be superhuman on offense, instead of just outstanding. Of players in the ACC who use more than 25% of the team's possessions (Singler's at 27.23), he's second only to Hansbrough in offensive efficiency.

Duke v. Davidson

Duke had the single worst stretch of defense I can recall about mid-way through the second half. Davidson scored on 10 of 11 possessions, picking up 22 points on 9-13 from the field and 3-3 from the line, plus gathering 3 of their 4 misses and not turning it over. Thankfully, Duke was up 51-27 before that stretch, so all it meant was that what looked like a blowout stayed interesting toward the end. Duke finished the game making just 3 field goals in its last 19 possessions (although they did pick up 9 additional points at the line). Halftime improvement note: Duke turned the ball over 10 times in its first 21 possessions. The rest of the way - just 2 in 49, including a stretch of nearly 25 straight without a turnover. Bonus points to Zoubek (7 and 9 in limited minutes, at very high efficiency) and Scheyer (22 points, steady execution at the end).

Meet the Seminoles

This is the first in what will be a series of 11 posts over the course of the season - before Duke's first game against each ACC opponent (or second, in Virginia Tech's case), we'll take a look at what that opponent has done thus far this year and what defines them as a team.

FSU started slowly - they collected wins, yes, but they were largely unimpressive: by 2 over Jacksonville, 4 over La Salle, 2 over Stetson. The low point came during the ACC/Big 10 challenge, when FSU went on the road to, ahem, Northwestern, and lost by 14. That said, the Noles have some very quality wins on the resume - over Cincinnati and Cal in Vegas, over Florida, and comfortably over Western Kentucky on a neutral court.

Everything FSU has accomplished this season is attributable to its defense. The offense is, well, ugly. They're the only team in the ACC not to score a point per possession in pre-conference play, and they've had 5 full games where their offensive rating is less than 90. They're the worst team in the league turning the ball over, and it's not really close. They're also worst in the league at hitting the offensive glass, although their numbers in that regard are respectable. FSU is enormously dependent on Toney Douglas - he's used more possessions than anyone else in the ACC, and his offensive rating is very decent for such a high usage player, at 111.82. The problem for FSU is, that's the highest rating on the team. None of the lower usage players are efficient contributors. Only Singleton is a reliable scoring threat - he and Douglas are the only Seminoles in double figures in more than half of the games. Quite simply, this team should struggle to score 60 against Duke.

Which may be fine by them. FSU has played slugfests this year. The win over Florida was 57-55. The loss to Pittsburgh was 48-56. The win over Cincinnati was 58-47. Etc. FSU has relied on very strong shooting defense, especially inside, to hold their opponents down. The Noles give up just 0.396 shooting on 2s, which is best in the league. This stems largely from shot-blocking - FSU blocks 13.15% of opponents' shots, which is also best in the league (and by a healthy margin). On the perimeter, the 3 point defense isn't great, but FSU has been effective in forcing turnovers, getting opponents to cough it up on 23.45% of possessions.

FSU's goal today will be to play aggressive D on the perimeter and force Duke into the trio of shot blockers that anchor the front line - Alabi (who leads the league in block rate), Reid, and Singleton. On offense, they'll likely try to play slow and keep the score low. It's also not a deep team - primarily 7 deep, with some occasional minutes to Derwin Kitchen and Deivydas Dulkys (who takes one 3 every 4 minutes he's on the court, but makes under 25% of his shots). They think they can win in the 50s, maybe even the 60s, but if Duke has anything with a 7 or higher in the front of it's score, it will be very, very difficult for FSU to pull out a win.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Meet Duke - 2009 Edition

First, brief apologies for the extended holiday absence. I was traveling for two weeks, and had other things to occupy my time. I will catch up with the HD boxes from the games I missed (Loyola MD, Va Tech) hopefully toward the end of this week.

On to the meat of this post. College basketball fans often have, for lack of a better term, jersey bias. They assume that, for example, Pittsburgh will always be a tough, hard-nosed defensive team, because that was their rep under Ben Howland when they first became a regularly good team about 10 years ago. Doesn't matter if both this year and last year (and the year before that, to a certain extent), the Panthers are a team that has won more with offense than with defense - people will always think of them as defensive stalwarts.

Duke gets its fair share of jersey bias as well. Because of the last few years, the Devils are usually regarded as a team that relies on the three, is weak inside, gets pounded on the glass, etc. Listen to commentators talk about Duke's prospects for the season overall, and some combination of those themes will be presented. Those themes may have been applicable to Duke in years past. But this season, at least so far, it's pure jersey bias - take these players out of the Duke jerseys and put them in someone else's, and the story would change instantly.

With that in mind, let's meet the 2009 edition of the Duke Blue Devils, and learn a little bit about how they've won so far. First, let's look at the offense. This may come as a shock to some, but of all the four factors, the one that the Devils have been best at thus far is offensive rebounding. Duke has collected a superb 42.3% of its own misses, good for 10th in the nation/7th in the major conferences/2nd in the ACC. Partially as a product of good offensive rebounding, and partially as a product of several talented slashers who can pass and finish around the basket, Duke's 2 point field goal percentage is also excellent - 55.6%, good for 18th/12th/2nd. Quite sensibly (and again, partially as a product of good offensive rebounding), Duke has been focused more on interior scoring than outside shooting - Duke takes just 32.6% of its attempts from outside, which is way down at 183rd in the country. Despite relatively poor outside shooting, Duke's EFG% is a very respectable 39th in the country due to more limited 3 point attempts and terrific inside shooting. Finally, Duke has excelled in getting to and converting from the line - the Devils are 25th in free throw rate and 24th in percentage.

On the defensive side, this is a more "typical" Duke team, with some wrinkles. As usual, three-pointers and assists are very difficult for opponents to come by. Opponents shoot just 27.4% of their attempts from outside and get assists on just 43.6% of their field goals, good for 25th and 8th in the country, respectively. These characteristics, more than anything else, have been the hallmarks of Duke defense in the last 6 years - Duke has never finished outside of the top 10% of all teams in either category, and is typically in the top 10 (in 2005, Duke was the best in the country in both). The other category at which the Devils have excelled thus far is steals - Duke takes the ball away on almost 14% of its opponents' possessions, good for 16th in the country. On the four factors side, Duke is very good in all categories - 28th in shooting against, 31st in denying offensive rebounds, 29th in forcing turnovers, and 60th in limiting free throw opportunities. The defensive rebounding improvement has been huge, as that's been an area of decided weakness for Duke in the past - 281st in 2005, 304th in 2006, and 216th in 2008. All these factors put together have given Duke the 5th best defense in raw terms (and best in adjusted) in all of the country.

So that's Duke so far. One of the keys to the remainder of the season will be whether the rebounding will hold up. Duke hasn't had to play front lines with the size that teams like UNC, Wake, FSU, etc. throw out there, and the Devils' ability to keep those teams off the offensive glass will be key to keeping up this defensive success. Tonight's opponent shouldn't be too much of a test in that regard - Davidson is not particularly large and not particularly good on the offensive glass.