When Duke Has the Ball
Duke's oft-criticized offensive ability will be under the microscope as the university looks to avoid back to back league losses. Turnovers have been the story so far for Coach K's young squad, and the loss to VT was a prime example. The Blue Devils had their highest turnover rate of the season, wasting 31.8% of their possessions, including six each by point guard Greg Paulus and pass-happy big man Josh McRoberts. This resulted in one of the least efficient offenses of the season for Duke, though their offensive rebounding, free throw rate, and effective field goal percentage all were average for Duke this season. Overall the offense has a very slow tempo, ranked 272nd out of 318 Division I schools, at just 60 possessions per game. When adjusted for this tempo, Duke's offense actually ranks a respectable 46th in the nation. McRoberts and Paulus are joined by junior swingman DeMarcus Nelson as the three players on the team with above average Offensive Ratings (100 is average). When Duke doesn't turn the ball over (as they do on 24% of their possessions, 263nd in the nation), they are very efficient in their scoring and getting to the free throw line (14th in the nation in FTRate). One area of excellence is in 3 point shooting: though Duke only shoots from behind the arc 28.5% of the time (283rd in the nation), they make their long range shots at an impressive 40.6% (26th in nation). This is led by Greg Paulus' extraordinary 50% rate from trey land.
Georgia Tech's defense is above average, at a tempo-adjusted 40th in the nation. They have induced a turnover on 24% of possessions (eerily like Duke's offensive total, and 81st in the nation), due in large part to a very good knack for getting a steal. Crittendon causes a steal on 3.7% of possessions, but the star is senior guard Mario West, at an outstanding 5.4% of possessions, 12th in the nation among those with 40% of minutes played. Junior bigman Ra'Sean Dickey anchors the paint with a block on 7.5% of possessions, good for the top 75 in the nation (for comparison, Shelden Williams had a block in 9.5% of Duke's possessions in 2006). The story for Georgia Tech has been their ability to limit the opponent's offensive efficiency: in their four losses, they have averaged an awful defensive efficiency of 120, while they've played outstanding defense in many of their wins, such as holding Purdue to an efficiency 85.5 on a neutral court. Strongly tied to their defensive efficiency is their ability to force turnovers and their ability to limit the other team's effective field goal percentage, whether it be strong perimeter defense, shot blocking, or limiting the opponents’ chances at the free throw line.
Duke has the potential to dominate this matchup if they can keep the turnovers down, especially since the 6-10 McRoberts and 7-1 frosh Brian Zoubek will be the tallest men whenever they’re on the court. Pounding the ball inside and getting Dickey and West into foul trouble would go a long way in this game. If, however, Crittenton and West are able to get into passing lanes and make things difficult for Paulus and the other Duke guards, the resulting transition offense for Tech may be too much to handle for the Blue Devils.
As mentioned, statistically speaking the Yellow Jackets have an offense that is among the best in the nation. Their most elite ability is that of the offensive rebound, which they gather on 43.4% of their possessions (4th in the nation). Their team 2-point shooting percentage is ninth in the nation, and they are also adept at avoiding the block. Some weaknesses for this defense are in turnovers; while nowhere near Duke in the rankings, a turnover in 21.1% of possessions is not ideal. Free throws are also a problem: not only do they not get to the line very much (23.5%, 200th) but once there, a lot of bricks fly (66.5% FT, 227th). Crittenton directs the offense and has an assist on 32.5% of his possessions, 53rd in the nation. Scoring most frequently goes through Young; he takes 27% of his team’s shots while on the court. Overall, their offense is strong and efficient, with seven men holding offensive ratings greater than 100. However, their rating may be inflated due to some cupcake games early on against Winston Salem State and Georgia State. The loss of Clich must also be mentioned while using their statistics to make predictions. However, Georgia Tech still maintained an above average offense (110 rating) in their one point loss at Clemson, without Clinch.
Duke’s defense is much lauded and for good reason, making this an intriguing matchup. The story here is perimeter defense: Duke is #1 in the country in opponent 3 point field goal percentage, fourth in the nation in opponent’s percentage of shots from behind the arc (just 25%), and is complemented by a solid steal and block percentage. Adjusted for the slow tempo at which Duke has been playing, their defensive rating is first in the nation. In the only statistic that truly matters, Duke has limited its opponents to a staggering 54.4 points per game. It is this defense which is crucial to the Blue Devils’ success in Atlanta. In their losses, Duke had two of their three worst defensive performances of the year. A game against Air Force was the third, and Duke was only able to overcome it with their strongest offensive showing of the year. Coach K’s team will need to continue its extraordinary perimeter defense to prevent Crittenton from getting the ball down low, from where most of Georgia Tech’s shots come.
Game Plan, Outlook
A smart move for Duke would be to run a tall, athletic lineup with McRoberts joined by Lance Thomas (if he has recovered from a foot injury). In addition, they would be wise to limit the minutes of Greg Paulus if his turnovers continue, as a quicker lineup of Nelson, Scheyer, and Henderson would be considerably better on defense. Brian Zoubek has been under-utilized so far this season, and while his size would be beneficial against a shorter GT squad, his raw defensive skills may not be ideal in this situation. Look for Duke to control the pace, as Georgia Tech likes to play a considerably faster game than the Blue Devils. This can only be effective, however, if Duke solves its turnover problems and prevents the Yellow Jacket’s running game.
This is going to be one of those close, hard fought ACC road games for Duke. Ken Pomeroy’s prediction is a one point loss for the Blue Devils- basically a toss up. Both teams are coming off heartbreaking losses, both teams have yet to win an ACC contest. In the end, it may be that Duke’s superior ability to get to the free throw line (so long as they shoot better from the stripe than against VT) will be the difference in this game.