According to the mainstream sports media, everyone can now forget about Duke’s men’s basketball team. Four losses in a row for the first time since 95-96 must mean that this year’s team will miss the NCAA tournament, and that Duke will be an “easy win” for Boston College (9 PM, ESPN).
The comparison to the 1995-96 team is actually a fair one, if based not on team expectations but on actual game results. While this years’ team came with guarded optimism (and a #12 preseason ranking), the 95-96 team was coming off the worst Duke season in fifteen years, and the last time the Blue Devils missed March Madness in Coach K’s tenure. The team led by Jeff Capel and Chris Collins was ranked for just five weeks all season, and went though a stretch where they (stop me if you’ve heard this before) lost four straight ACC games by a combined score of 22. Flashing forward eleven years, the Blue Devils are coming off four straight ACC losses by a combined score of 21.
Statistically speaking, this is the worst Blue Devil offense since the 1996 version, with an offensive efficiency of just 107 points/100 possessions. However, they combine this with an extraordinary defense- which, despite the struggles in conference, still sits at a raw efficiency of 89 points/100 possessions, which is substantially better than any team since the 1992 championship team (DE: 91) and the 1993 Final Four team (DE: 90). With only one opponent that has a superior offensive team left on the schedule (UNC), there is a chance that this team is the best, defensively speaking, that Coach K has ever had. You can see the stats for yourself here.
That’s performance though, and in an excellent blog post recently, Ken Pomeroy talked about the false relationship of achievement and performance. Teams that win a lot tend to forget all the things that they do poorly (see: offensive rebounding and the 2006 Blue Devils), and teams that do poorly are likely to lose focus in the areas in which they have superior achievement. It is crucial for tonight’s game that Duke remember its strengths, particularly the strength of its rebounding. In the first meeting in Cameron, both teams grabbed an extraordinary number of offensive rebounds: Duke’s 54.5% offensive rebounding rate was the highest of the season, and its 59.6% defensive rebounding rate was the lowest of the season. While the Duke game was a season low-point for BC’s defensive rebounding, its own offensive rebounding (that is, 40.4%) was a simply average performance.
What this should suggest, given the nature of statistics to tend towards the mean, is that a more average effort on both boards should be expected from Duke tonight. More crucial to Duke, believe it or not, is grabbing defensive rebounds. Duke’s offensive efficiency is more highly correlated with its defensive rebounding than its offensive rebounding.
Duke failing to rebound as many of its misses as in the first match-up should lead to one obvious effect: a quicker pace. This would seem to favor Boston College, since Duke’s games have shown a much slower pace. However, pace does not seem to accurately predict the efficiency of Duke’s offense this season. Efficiency, however, has clearly dictated wins and losses for Duke. Regardless of the tempo of the game tonight, Duke needs to execute, avoiding turnovers (this has been better since the VT game) and avoiding bad shot selection (a plaguing problem since the first BC game).
The individual match-ups of players will continue to favor Duke if Demarcus Nelson can find the rhythm he has been missing the past four games. According to the “points per possession played” metric measured at dbdhoops (kind of a plus/minus for basketball), Nelson has made the offense and the defense worse in the past four games. However, Duke probably cannot survive with Nelson on the bench tonight, as his containment of Sean Marshal (1 for 8 from the field), was critical to Duke’s home victory. Further, if Josh McRoberts continues his mission to be more assertive on offense (seen in the second halves of both the UNC and Maryland games), Duke’s offense should improve enough for the Blue Devils to win. It will be a close game, but BC’s “SuperFans” won’t be rushing the court- not because of the suggestion by a jackass reporter, but because Duke will be victorious. Duke, 75-65.