In the January of my junior year of college, Duke was blown out by Georgetown. I was watching the game with a group of people and I remember somebody behind me yelling, “Duke just isn’t a good come from behind team.” I reacted poorly to this comment. At the time, I did not believe that “coming from behind” was a skill distinctive from outscoring the opponent in general. I suppose we could argue about whether “mental toughness” is something particularly valuable, it probably is. However, the 2009-10 Duke team’s mental toughness probably did not need to be questioned. After the Georgetown loss, I cannot say that I was optimistic about the team’s chances in the NCAA Tournament. The loss was not caused by a lack of mental toughness. Duke just got whooped.
As everybody knows, that team went on to win the National Championship. I have lots of championship gear to remind me of how wrong I was about that team. That season, I had two major problems with the Duke team: 1) Reliance on 3pt shooting and 2) Poor defensive rebounding. Duke was the best 3pt shooting team in the ACC that season, so my first concern may have been unfair. I believed that a team that relied so heavily on 3pt shooting was eventually going to have a cold night and would lose at some point in the tournament. Although I still believe that to a certain extent, it has become more apparent to me over time that a quality 3pt shot is the most efficient shot in the game. On the other hand, my concerns about Duke’s defensive rebounding were justified. Duke recovered only 67.5% of available defensive rebounds, 174th nationally and 5th in the ACC. By comparison, the 2012-13 Duke squad recovered 67.7% of available defensive rebounds. If you can remember how bad a defensive rebounding team year’s team was, the 2010 champions were equally bad.
How did Duke overcome this major flaw? According to KenPom, Duke had the 1st ranked adjusted offense and 4th ranked adjusted defense. Those rankings include games played in the tournament, so they may not perfectly reflect Duke’s statistics heading into the tournament. However, 6 games can only change so much. Duke was clearly top 10 in both offense and defense heading into the tournament.
Frankly, that season’s Duke offense was fantastic. The team scored 1.16 points per possession. Duke took the 11th most free throws in the nation and shot the 8th highest FT%. Duke shot 38.5% from 3, 26th in the nation and 1st in the ACC. Although the squad had a low assist percentage, they more than made up for it with excellent ball security. Duke turned the ball over on only 16.4% of possessions (a fantastic rate). However, the unique aspect of that Duke offense was the team’s outrageous offensive rebounding percentage. Duke recovered 40.6% of available offensive rebounds, 6th in the nation and 1st in the ACC. Those offensive rebounds renewed lost possessions and often resulted in open 3pt attempts. To review, Duke got to the line a lot, made a high percentage of FTs, made a high percentage of threes, did not turn the ball over, and recovered a very high percentage of available offensive rebounds. That is the recipe for a very efficient offense.
On defense, Duke was nearly as efficient as the team was on offense. As a team, Duke gave up 0.92 points per possession. The team struggled on the defensive boards and with forcing turnovers. However, Duke’s opponents never got to the free line. Duke permitted only 750 FTs (this is a really good thing). Duke took 150 more FTs than it allowed, a difference of nearly 4 FTs per game. Similarly, Duke’s opponents did not take many threes. Duke permitted 560 3pt attempts (this is also a really good thing). Ken Pomeroy’s research has shown that the most consistent way to defend the 3pt shot is to prevent shots from being taken in the first place. At least in this way, Duke’s three point defense was fantastic. Pomeroy’s research has also shown that talking about a team’s defensive three point percentage is similar to talking about a team’s defensive free throw percentage in that they are both out of the defense’s control. Opponents shot 28.2% from three that season, 2nd worst in the nation. If three point percentage is not a defensive skill, then Duke was very, very lucky. More likely, Duke’s defense prevented open threes and forced opponents into taking long, contested field goals.
In hindsight, the 2009-10 Duke squad was strong on both ends of the floor. The team was as deserving of its National Championship as Louisville is deserving of its title. This conflicts with how some people view Duke’s championship season. It has been said that Duke had an easy road to the Final 4 and that the NCAA may have helped Duke alone way. Conspiracy theories aside, Duke may have benefited from certain matchups. No team can win a championship without some luck. In that sense, Duke may have had some good fortune. However, by the numbers, Duke was at least one of the few best teams in the country and plenty deserving of its success.