The 2013 Duke Men’s Basketball team ended its season among the final eight teams left in the NCAA Tournament. Although historically this may have been a neutral outcome, given the squad’s peripheral statistics, lasting until the Elite 8 may have been a best case scenario. As a rule of thumb, Final 4 contenders should be expected to be in the top twenty offensively and defensively. Although “top 20” does not strictly mean top 20 (statistics are generally not accurate enough to differentiate among 20 and 21 and 22…), teams that are too dependent on either offense or defense to win generally struggle to win the four games necessary to reach the semifinals. There is too much randomness (the things we assume cannot be controlled) involved to expect that excellence on one side of the ball is enough to carry a team. Eventually, the shots won’t fall or the opposition’s shots will.
With that said, heading into last season’s tournament, Duke was on the outer edge of what I’ve defined as a Final 4 contender. According to Ken Pomeroy’s rankings (kenpom.com), Duke was the 4th best offensive team in the nation, controlling for strength of schedule. On the other hand, Duke’s defense was ranked 27th. By comparison, the following teams were top 20 in both: Louisville, Florida, Indiana, Gonzaga, Ohio St., and Pittsburgh. Say what you will about each of those teams and their respective tournament outcomes but common sense points out that a point scored is pretty similar to a point prevented, and these teams were proficient at both.
However, aside from Louisville, none of the Final 4 participants met this criteria. Michigan was ranked 1st in offense and 39th in defense. Syracuse was ranked 22nd in offense and 5th in defense. Finally, Wichita St. was ranked 27th in offense and 26th in defense. Obviously, my rule of thumb is no stricter than a speed limit. My point is not that Duke could not have reached the Final 4. Nor am I saying that Duke could not have beaten Louisville (ranked 5th in offense and 1st in defense). There is enough randomness in basketball that any top 4 seed could win any particular game. Unfortunately, potential randomness was not all that comforting to me with 10 minutes to go in the second half against Louisville.
Looking back on the 2012-13 season, Duke was subpar in a number of areas and excellent in others. Ranked 27th in defense by Kenpom, Duke’s field goal percentage against in conference games (from this point on, all stats are in conference unless stated otherwise) was 44.1%, 202nd in the nation (there were 347 Division 1 teams last season). Duke forced turnovers on 15.5% of opponent’s possessions, 329th in the nation. Duke’s defensive rebounding rate (the percentage of defensive rebound opportunities that the team grabbed) was 66.2%, 248th in the nation. For the entire season, Duke afforded its opponents an offensive rebound 32.3% of the time, which would put Duke in the mid-200s nationally. Somewhat surprisingly, Duke held its opponents to an assist rate (the percentage of field goals with an assist attributed) of 40%, 1st in the nation. I’m not sure what to make of this final statistic. On one hand, Duke’s perimeter defense may have been so poor that opposing teams did not even need to pass to score. On the other hand, Duke may have properly played passing lanes and effectively eliminated assist opportunities. Regardless, the best that could be said about Duke’s defense is that it was somehow ranked 27th despite all its deficiencies. This is mostly explained by how Pomeroy controls for strength of schedule (Kenpom ranked Duke’s SOS 7th).
The idea that Duke’s offense carried the team should be surprising to no Duke fan. Nor should it be surprising that Duke’s offense was mostly carried by its outstanding three point shooting percentage of 39.9% for the season, 6th in the nation. What might be surprising were Duke’s deficiencies on offense. The team’s offensive rebounding rate was 30%, 212th in the nation. By comparison, during the 2010 Championship season, Duke’s O rate was 40.6%, 6th in the nation. Much of Duke’s 2010 success can be attributed to its proficiency on the offensive boards. This past season, Duke’s assist rate for the entire season was 53.6%, 168th in the nation. Fortunately, Duke more than made up for its lack of rebounding and assists with excellent shooting, a large number of free throw attempts, and very few turnovers. Duke took 796 free throws for the season, 21st most in the country (Mason took 254 of those free throws, 10th most in the country). Finally, Duke’s turnover rate was 15.5%, 329th in the nation (actually, a good thing as this indicates how little Duke turned the ball over). With all of this taken into account, Duke scored 1.13 points per possession for the season, good for 8th in the nation. With few qualifications, Duke’s offense was excellent last season.
With last season in the rearview mirror and next season on the horizon, it is easier to complain about Duke’s recent flaws than it is to laud its recent strengths. During the past 2 seasons, the team’s defensive ability has been pretty poor. A strong offense has come at the expense of quality defense. Before the 2011-12 season, Duke was top 20 in Kenpom defense nearly every season. Hopefully, graduation, attrition, and experience will help improve Duke’s defense without harming its offensive production too much. The team’s 2 or 3 best offensive players from last season have graduated. Although it would be hard for Duke’s general offensive output to improve, a reasonable projection would be a slight drop in offensive efficiency. However, as recent Final 4 teams have shown, you do not need to be top 5 in everything to win, but it helps.