What a difference two weeks makes. When last the Blue Devils were set to take on the Terrapins, as they will tonight (9 PM, ESPN), both teams were coming off rough stretches. The game, in which Maryland jumped out to a commanding lead and held off a second half Duke run, was a turning point for both teams. Maryland has won four straight ACC games since, including a comeback win over UNC on Sunday. Duke, meanwhile, has also won four straight. The teams come into tonight's contest tied for fifth place in the ACC, and seedings for both the conference and national tournaments may hang in the balance.
Duke's turnaround after their first four-game losing streak in a decade has been, surprisingly, about the defense. Back when I wrote my first game preview, the Blue Devils had just opened ACC play and their offense was ranked 46 th in the nation, adjusted for tempo and opponents. More than a month later, Duke still sits tenth in the ACC in raw efficiency, scoring just 1.03 points per possession. It is not surprising then that many have missed Duke's offensive improvement: in a little over a month, Duke has improved its offense to 37 th in the nation, with an adjusted efficiency of 113.8. Before the GT road game, Nelson, Scheyer, and McRoberts were the only Duke players with OE ratings above 100, and just barely at that. Now, Paulus has joined them, at 103.7, after dropping his turnover rate considerably and improved his scoring rate. In addition, Scheyer is well above average at 116.1, and among the top 175 offensive players in the nation (in terms of tempo-free scoring). Behind this improved offense, the Blue Devils have had efficiencies above their season average in each game of their four-game winning streak.
Things have not been as bright for the Blue Devils on defense, however. It was perhaps inevitable that ACC competition would decrease Duke's defensive efficiency, but seven of Duke's last ten games have feature defensive efficiencies above 100. That should count as poor defense for a Duke team averaging a DE of 86.5 on the season. One reason, that could also explain Duke's apparent inability to sustain a large lead, could be transition defense. Duke's offense in the second half has been less efficient over the last four games- pick your reason, be it stall-ball, poor execution, rushed shots, or the opponent's full court press. Regardless, the defense has been subjected to a lot of fast breaks in the last four second-halves, as well as the first half in the previous matchup with Maryland. I will try to keep track of fast break versus half-court opportunities for both teams in this game and see what the numbers look like.
As for the game itself, it will be interesting to see if Maryland can keep up its extraordinary offense from its last five games, averaging 1.13 points per possession. In addition to improving its transition defense, Duke needs to find a way to stop the dribble-drive work of Greivis Vasquez and DJ Strawberry. In the first matchup, Maryland only attempted seven 3-pt shots (making two) and Vasquez had four of these (making one). Maryland had about as many layups and dunks attempted as they did jumpshots (compared to Duke, who took two jumpers for every layup/dunk). Therefore the Terrapins were able to successfully take Duke's perimeter defense out of play by not attempting many outside shots. Duke must toughen their defense against the drive, and the best way to do this would be to put Demarcus Nelson and Jon Scheyer on Strawberry and Vasquez, respectively. This would leave Greg Paulus to guard Mike Jones or Eric Hayes, but these players aren't much bigger than Maryland's top guards, and are certainly much slower.
On offense, Josh McRoberts must continue the domination he found while guarded by the inferior Ibekwe in the second half of the first matchup. McRoberts mixed up his scoring very well on the way to twenty points, by taking an equal number of jumpers and layups/dunks, including four of five shots from more than 3 feet. This should be complimented by a lot of dribble penetration from Scheyer and Nelson, looking to free up a shooter for an easier three-pointer.
Looking at the stats and thinking more, I don't think this is going to be the blowout I predicted to Agent Swag back on Sunday. However, I do think that Duke's new found offense will combine with a redoubled effort on defense in a rowdy Cameron Indoor Stadium, and that Duke will prevail. Duke, 75-67.