Playing With Tempo


Mar 24, 2013; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Duke Blue Devils guard Rasheed Sulaimon (14) celebrates making a three pointer during the second half against the Creighton Bluejays during the third round of the NCAA basketball tournament at Wells Fargo Center. Duke defeated Creighton 66-50. Mandatory Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

One of the silver linings of roster turnover is that we have the opportunity to see how Coach K applies his system to the different players who come through Durham. This past year’s team revolved around Duke’s two best skills: 3pt shooting and Mason Plumlee’s strong post offense. There is an expectation that next season’s Duke team will be characterized by 3pt shooting (once again) and superior athleticism. If these expectations turn out to be accurate, Duke will likely play at a faster pace than they did last season. Post offense normally requires a team to slow down the ball to allow a forward to gain proper positioning. Without a dominant post player, this coming year’s team may have to push the ball up the court so that the squad’s athleticism can create easy baskets.

The 2012-13 Duke team was ranked 96th in pace by KenPom at 67.6 possessions per 40 min. Roy William’s Tar Heels, known for pushing the ball constantly, were ranked 15th at 70.6 possessions per 40 minutes. However, pace alone is not indicative of success or quality. It is what a team does with those possessions that matters most. Of Kenpom’s 10 highest rated teams from last season, Duke was barely second to Kansas in possessions per game. Surprisingly, Duke played at a faster pace than Indiana, Florida, and Michigan.

Playing quickly does not guarantee success. However, playing quickly may suit a team’s skill set better than playing half-court offense constantly would. For example, Roy Williams specifically recruits point guards who can direct his up-tempo offense. Without Mason Plumlee, Coach K may try to give his athletes the ball in open space, rather than set up in the half court to create offense in the post. Is it reasonable to expect that Duke will play at a quicker pace this coming season?

The short answer is yes. The long answer is yes, but don’t expect too much. Firstly, last year’s team did not play at a particularly slow pace. As I said earlier, Duke was within 0.2 possessions per 40 min of being the quickest team in Pomeroy’s top 10. Most of the teams who play at a quicker pace than Duke are small conference teams with gimmicky offenses: the likes of Nebraska Omaha, Central Arkansas, Northwestern St., Texas St., etc. Mason Plumlee was not your traditionally slow footed big man and Duke tried to take advantage of Plumlee’s athleticism by pushing the ball if possible. Duke’s pace was somewhat slowed by Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly, but in general, Duke was not nearly as slow as Louisville, Gonzaga, or Ohio State.

In the recent past, Duke’s pace has fluctuated from year to year. Going backwards, Duke’s pace has ranked 96th (2013), 96th (2012), 52nd (2011), 249nd (2010), 122nd (2009), 16th (2008). A few things stand out. In Duke’s championship season, they played very slowly (2010). The next season, with Kyrie Irving for part of the season, Duke sped up. Since then, the team has found a middle ground.

What does this tell us about the 2013-14 season? Well, the guards handling the ball will not be that different from last season, so if you think that pace is partially dictated by ball handlers, then maybe we shouldn’t expect too big of a change. On other hand, the team’s offense will be fundamentally different, so maybe Quinn Cook (and whoever else brings the ball up the court) will make a conscious effort to get up the floor more quickly. If Duke plays a small lineup, the team may have problems defensively when playing bigger teams. Forcing turnovers, something Duke has not been particularly good at recently, will be critical to compensating and will hopefully lead to easy baskets on the other end.

It seems likely to me that Duke will play at a faster pace next season. The team’s talent seems better suited to playing in open space than in the half-court. However, I don’t expect to see a North Carolina style offense in Durham. Coach K is very good at implementing a style that matches his talent, and it is not evident to me that this Duke team is that much more suited to lightning speed than last year’s team was.