Wednesday, February 07, 2007

To Hell

This is an age where hyperbole of sports situations and instant history are taken to extreme levels, and coverage of rivalries has spiked as the mainstream sports media feeds on the yearly rivalry stories. Still, all this hype and exaggeration has still managed to underestimate the intensity of perhaps the greatest rivalry of them all: Duke and Carolina.

Many of the students at these two esteemed universities learn their loyalty while attending, realizing the greatness in the rivalry’s intensity through experience. For others, especially those raised in North Carolina, it is almost as if each child is branded with either shade of blue at birth. In 2005, months before UNC was to win their fourth national championship, I had the opportunity to witness this branding firsthand, at East Carteret High School in Beaufort, NC. You see, most of these children had never been as far away from home as Raleigh (100 miles to the northwest) or Myrtle Beach (75 miles south). And yet, the week of the Duke-Carolina game, suddenly the students started to segregate into different shades of blue. The day of the game, it was powerful: just seeing a fellow student wearing a cap with the gothic “D” prompted immediate shouts of “Duke Sucks!” and the retort “Go to Hell Carolina!” in the hallways. Nearly 200 miles from Cameron Indoor Stadium, it was no different from visiting a Wal-Mart on Tobacco Road while wearing my Duke sweatshirt, and being greeted by death-stares from UNC supporters.

The reason I offered this story is because of the ultimate futility of previewing a Duke-Carolina game in the manner I have so far offered. Statistical analysis and past performance goes out the window when rivalries are involved. It is not just pro-Duke bias I am worried about; I am quite sure that is indicated in everything I’ve written so far. It’s pro-Carolina bias as well, driven by that paranoia that is present in the best rivalries. I watched UNC dismantle (an Oden-less) Ohio State back in November, and destroy Arizona in Tempe just last month, and I can’t help but be scared for my beloved and inconsistent Blue Devils. In four years as a student, Duke lost at home three times: Georgia Tech in 2004, Maryland in 2005, and UNC in 2006. This season, Duke has lost at home twice already, and the home-court advantage that Cameron Indoor Stadium provides may not be enough to overcome a Tar Heel squad that I have built up in my mind to tremendous levels.

And my intuition is indeed supported by the statistics: though Duke’s adjusted defensive efficiency is best in the nation (80.5 points per 100 possessions), UNC is number two, and has closed the gap considerably (80.6). On offense, it is no surprise that UNC is quite superior, running over opponents with a 121 points per 100 possessions (7th in the nation) at a frenzied pace (74.2 possessions/game, 9th in nation). The portrayal in the mainstream sports media of Duke’s inept offense is pretty exaggerated, though. Many fans look at the point totals and see that Duke is averaging just 69.4 ppg, way behind UNC’s 88.1 ppg. However, Duke has one of the slowest paces in the nation (65.0 possessions/game, 252nd), and scores rather efficiently in their few opportunities (111.9 points/100 possessions, 49th in nation). This really is a match-up of two extraordinary defenses, along with one great offense (UNC) and one good offense (Duke). The game, quite clearly, will come down to which team will be able to dictate pace.

Duke can find some hope in that UNC has lost twice in conference already, both times on the road. In fact, in all three losses this season, the Tar Heels have had three of their four worst defensive games. What was key for both Virginia Tech and NC State was their ability to get to the free-throw line, making their offensive possessions much more efficient. With this efficiency, both teams were able to play a much faster game than they normally play and still be able to hang with Carolina. Both VT and NCSU were able to prevent UNC from grabbing too many offensive rebounds, and this has been one of Duke’s strengths so far as well. However, Duke has failed to get to the line very much in conference play. Rather than go through all the statistics, I figured I’d just post a chart:

This shows the relative rankings of Duke and UNC in a lot of different stats. The only unfamiliar ones may be EFG% which is effective field goal percentage (shooting success weighted by free throws and shots from behind the arc) and PPWS (points per weighted shot: how many points a team scores every time it shoots the ball). These stats were taken from Paul Rugani’s amazing site, DBDHoops.

Even if Duke is able to slow the game down to a half-court pace, they still have to deal with Tyler Hansbrough. The problem with the match-up isn’t in doubting the defensive ability of Josh McRoberts, who has been outstanding on defense. The key will be in how tight a game the referees will be calling down low. Hansbrough likes to initiate a lot of contact, and as Rugani pointed out, he shoots 4 free throws for every 5 field goals, an absurd free throw rate. Meanwhile Brandon Wright has been no slouch, shooting an EFG% of 63.4% (38th in all of D-I). If McRoberts gets into foul trouble early, this game will be all pale blue in a hurry.

The perimeter play is not as crucial for UNC, except in terms of generating assists and steals. Ty Lawson has stolen the minutes from his elders with strong play from the point guard position, and his assist/turnover ratio (4th in ACC) and steal percentage (1st in ACC) are the results on which his increased minutes are based. Limiting turnovers is once again critical for Duke, though being efficient on offense in general is going to be the key for Duke.

The Blue Devils are now playing below their winning percentage as predicted from their points for and points against totals (known as Pythagorean Winning Percentage). This is clearly due to their inability to close out close games effectively, owning a 1-3 record in games decided by five or fewer points. There are two ways to look at this number: either Duke’s “luck” will turn around and the shots will fall in crunch time, or that Duke has some kind of inability to win in close pressure situations, be it because of foul trouble or fatigue or (gasp!) poor coaching strategy. I’d like to think it’s the former, and I’d like to think that McRoberts can become a force in this game and keep it close enough for the Cameron Crazies to have a reason to burn shit tonight. Duke, 72-70.

1 comment:

Lifeafter said...

I should have saved reading your post until class, but the anticipation was too much to fight. Eating at a pizza shop on Hilsborough, 30' from NC State, some guy walked in wearing a Tar Hole sweater and a light blue, fro, crazy wig. I don't know if he wanted attention, or if he was just some jerk who didn't realize that he was at the wrong school, but I was proud of the way that not one of the 20 State students in the shop even gave him a second glance. If you can't go to college, go to state (Blue Fro Yo seems to have made it that far). If you can't go to state go to prison. If you can't go to prison go to Hell. Go to Hell carolina go to Hell!