Sunday, February 11, 2007

Duke at Maryland Preview

It is anyone's guess what kind of basketball team will stagger into the Comcast center tonight to face Maryland (5 PM, ESPN). The Blue Devils, having lost three straight since 1995, and may soon be in a position to hear a word not uttered in that same 12 years: the bubble. Maryland is no stranger to that bubble in recent years, and after beginning the season in the Top 25, the Terrapins have gone 3-6 in the conference and will need some quality wins before they can inch their way back into tournament discussion.

Both Duke and Maryland are teams playing well below their Pythagorean projection, which is based on combined offensive and defensive rating. While this may be partly because of both teams' dominance over non-conference opponents, it does give hope that both teams will find more luck in their close games in the future, as regression kicks in. However, this assumes that the teams do not lack some skill that give them a disadvantage in games that are close. As written back before the UNC game, these things could be fatigue, coaching strategy, even foul trouble.

Duke has played extraordinary first halves in its last three games, averaging 37 points (season ppg: 69.7), and has blown double-digit leads in all three games. Of course, pace matters, but these three games had widely different paces: from the racetrack UNC game (74 possessions, most for Duke this season), to the plodding pace of the Virginia game (57 possessions, second least for Duke this season). The FSU game was an average pace for Duke this season with 63 possessions. Despite the different styles, there are some worrying trends that emerge in the tempo-free team stats. Offensive rebounding percentage and free throw rate were way down for Duke in the last three contests. While this may have been understandable against players such as Al Thorton and Tyler Hansbrough, it was inexcusable against Virginia. Part of the problem may actually be perimeter defense: when Duke's guards get trapped out beyond the arc, the top pick-setter in Duke's motion offense is the big man. So Josh McRoberts or Brian Zoubek is now 25 feet from the basket as the offense gets initiated, and out of position for rebounds. McRoberts compounds the problem with his propensity to take floaters or jump hooks, limiting contact, and therefore free throws.

The top key to the last three games, though, may be that Duke has played awful defense. When Duke has kept their opponent below 100 points/possession, they are 16-0. Above 100, they are 2-6 (lumping in the 99.8 performance by VT). Allowing 68 points to Virginia on just 57 possessions was pretty terrible, and it would have been a blowout had Virginia shot better (just 44.8 eFG%). It is curious that none of the other tempo-free statistics look particularly bad for Duke: the turnover rate is below average, but Duke's defensive strength has never been turnovers. It has been limiting the opponents' field goal percentage, particularly from beyond the arc. They did this against UNC (3 for 12) and Virginia (4 for 13) but not against FSU (8 for 16).

So, what to expect from the game tonight? Maryland, like UNC, likes to play a very fast pace. Luckily for Duke, this pace has led to one of the worst offensive efficiencies in ACC play (99 pts/100 poss- only WF is less than 100). Maryland hasn't rebounded the ball particularly well on either end in conference play, and only senior forward Ekene Ibekwe stands out (11.4 OR%, 5th in conference). The Terrapins score most of their points in the paint, with only a quarter of all points scored from beyond the arc. They rely on getting to the line more than average (25% of all points scored), but they don't shoot particularly well once there (69%), dragged down by the FT% of their two most frequent foul line participants (Strawberry and Ibekwe). Often, Maryland's points are keyed by assists from their guards- in fact, they have the highest percentage of assisted points in the conference. This is led by DJ Strawberry and Greivis Vasquez, who along with reserve frosh guard Eric Hayes all have assists on greater than 22% of their possessions played. The latter two players, however, combine this with a high turnover percentage; Strawberry, meanwhile, is good at keeping the turnovers down.

On the defensive end, Maryland likes to limit their opponent's three-point shooting and free throw rate. While Duke is 6th in the nation with a 28.8 3pt% against, Maryland is fifth with 28.7% against, and is also first in conference play. Duke, meanwhile, has faltered in conference play against the trey, allowing 36.6%. Maryland has trouble limiting shooting on 2-pt shots, though they do get the highest percentage of blocks in conference, led by Ibekwe.

For all these stats, it really feels quite apparent that the key to the game is like any other for Duke: limit the pace, step up the defense. Duke has not played a game faster than 74 possessions, Maryland is 9-5 when playing slower than 74 possessions (versus 9-2 at a faster pace). Maryland is at its weakest when it cannot grab the offensive rebound; Duke should look to return to its early-season dominance on the defensive boards, with McClure gaining minutes. Josh McRoberts must have a breakout game following the disappointing showing versus UNC- he must go in strong and get Ibekwe into foul trouble, for it will be much easier for Duke to score on the interior than with long-range shots.

This is a tough matchup for Duke, against a fast-paced, athletic team on the road (it's tough to play when batteries are flying at you). Pessimism and superstition reign here; a pick against Duke may turn things around (Coach K:"Hey, did you see what Immaculate Inning said about us?!? Let's go out there and show them what's for!") Maryland, 70-65.


Xenod said...

you picked Maryland....

Xenod said...

....good pick....