Monday, February 16, 2009

Remember When...

...Duke had a good basketball team? Those were the days:

Stats taken from Ken Pomeroy's site, which are tempo-free statistics. Scroll over to the right for the defense stats. Efficiency is measured by Points/Possession x 100, and the other percentages are also per possession. The rankings are through games on February 15, showing the clear difference between teams Duke played in the calendar year 2008 compared with those played in 2009 (The ACC season plus Davidson and Georgetown).

Duke has also played about 10 percent less efficiently on both ends of the court in the last thirteen games. Depending on how much schedule played a part, this is either terrible or perhaps expected. Still, here is the defensive efficiency rating turned in by Duke in the last six games, along with that team's Pomeroy offensive rating (in parentheses):

@ Wake Forest (51): 92
vs Virginia (126): 77.8
@ Clemson (15): 118.3
vs Miami (26): 97.4
vs North Carolina (1): 127.6
@ Boston College (22): 116.2

Perhaps this performance is no accident; four of the five best offenses Duke has faced this season have been in the last four games! The only other defensive efforts worse than 1.00 points/possession came against Georgetown (19th ranked offense), at Michigan (66), and against Rhode Island (31). While it may be tempting to cut Duke some slack because of the level of offensive play they've been against, getting far in the NCAA tourney by hoping to play crappy offenses is not exactly a winning strategy.

Breaking it down, the component statistics that most closely parallel Duke's declining efficiency is rebounding. Duke is not a horrible rebounding team on the offensive glass, grabbing about 40% of their own missed shots, good for 15th in the nation. On the defensive glass, however, things are a lot less pretty: 31.8% of Duke's opponent's missed shots are grabbed by the other team (128th nationally). This particular statistic has gotten much worse in ACC play, where opponents are grabbing 35% of their missed shots.

I have not said much about the offense because it hasn't been as much of a problem in 2009, games versus Clemson and Wake Forest excepted. North Carolina is frequently seen to have a soft defense but it still ranks 14th in the nation, and the fourth best defense Duke has seen (behind Purdue, Wake Forest, and Florida State). Duke ran out a 109.9 offensive efficiency against UNC at Cameron, which is not too shabby-- it was the 127.6 stinker on defense (worst of the season for Duke) that was the deciding factor in that game. While Duke is indeed limited by some of the best defenses, such as at Wake Forest (89.3) and Florida State (98.0), it is not as stark a difference as on defense. What Duke's offense is not, however, is an offense that can carry a poor defensive performance to victory against top teams.

Curiously, none of the main component statistics stand out for Duke, which has the fifth best defense in the nation as ranked by Pomeroy. The only stat that kind of stands out is that Duke makes a steal on 12.9% of possessions, which ranks 19th nationally. The other stats, which Pomeroy calls the "four factors" are above average but none seem to scream "This why Duke has the fifth ranked defense." Indeed, just going by raw statistics Duke is ranked 29th, which seems a lot more in line with the components. Pomeroy weights each performance by the strength of schedule, which is how Duke ends up fifth. But if Duke plays exceptionally against poor offenses and poorly against exceptional offenses, weighting by schedule is going to skew the actual ability of Duke's defense.

The conclusion I am forced to draw is that Duke's high defensive efficiency was inflated by a mediocre non-conference schedule (ranked 91st by Pomeroy), and is incapable of playing at an elite level against top-25 offenses. Last Tuesday night, before the Duke-Carolina game, Mike Krzyzewski spoke to the Cameron Crazies. One thing he said stuck with me: "You guys don't need to chant 'Let's Get Hungry.' This team is hungry, believe me they are hungry." And so when I watched the dismantling of Duke's defense by UNC and by Boston College four days later, I couldn't help but think of this South Park clip:

If Duke is interested in keeping their Pomeroy ranking high, may I humbly suggest abandoning the Atlantic Coast Conference, with a move to the less elite A-10. Or at least the Big Ten. In the meantime, I'm looking forward to the Annual Duke Sweet Sixteen Bowout. Because at this point in the season, even that's a reach for the Blue Devils.

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