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.

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