Duke basketball: Assessing Blue Devils, links to past national champions

Duke basketball (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Duke basketball (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images) /

Looking at what almost all championship squads this century have shared in common, is Duke basketball a contender or pretender this season?

We have officially entered into one of my favorite stretches of the season! February is the month where we get some of the highest levels of basketball we’ll see all season, as tournament bids solidify, bubbles burst, and the cream of the crop rises to the forefront. Plus, we get a better idea of where the Duke basketball team stands.

Delineating between the “contenders” and the “pretenders” in college basketball is often difficult, due to the small margin for error that the NCAA Tournament allows, but to narrow the field I sought to assess the linkages — or historical indicators — to past NCAA National Champions and compare them to the current 2020 field.

1. Adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies within the top 20

The first evaluation is made utilizing the popular predictive metric analytic site, KenPom, using the adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies for each team dating back to 2001.

NCAA Champions 2001-2019 (with offensive and defensive efficiency national ranking):

  • 2001 – Duke (2nd/3rd)
  • 2002 – Maryland (4th/7th)
  • 2003 – Syracuse (17th/14th)
  • 2004 – Connecticut (9th/6th)
  • 2005 – North Carolina (2nd/5th)
  • 2006 – Florida (3rd/7th)
  • 2007 – Florida (1st/13th)
  • 2008 – Kansas (2nd/1st)
  • 2009 – North Carolina (1st/18th)
  • 2010 – Duke (1st/5th)
  • 2011 – Connecticut (19th/15th)
  • 2012 – Kentucky (2nd/7th)
  • 2013 – Louisville (7th/1st)
  • 2014 – Connecticut (39th/10th)
  • 2015 – Duke (3rd/11th)
  • 2016 – Villanova (3rd/5th)
  • 2017 – North Carolina (9th/11th)
  • 2018 – Villanova (1st/11th)
  • 2019 – Virginia (2nd/5th)

As you can see, there is one noticeable anomaly among those 19 champions: 2014 Connecticut. While the 2003 Syracuse and 2011 UConn teams did not have the deviation between efficiencies like the 2014 UConn team, their rankings for both sides of the ball ranked within the top 20 in the country. Generally, if you are a “contender,” you’d like to see the predictive metric have both your offense and defense rank within the top 20 in the country.

The Duke Blue Devils (23-4, 13-3 ACC), coming off an 88-64 beatdown of Virginia Tech on Saturday, are maintaining an adjusted offensive efficiency (AdjO) of 115.0 points per 100 possessions and an adjusted defensive efficiency (AdjD) of 89.1 points per 100 possessions. That’s good enough to rank 8th and 9th in the country, respectively.

Duke’s raw efficiency numbers (not adjusted based on location and opponent) are just as pristine, ranking 7th and 11th, respectively. The only team relatively as balanced is San Diego State.

The Duke basketball team remains one of, if not the, most balanced in the country from an offense/defense perspective. The only other teams to rank within the top 20 for both AdjO and AdjD are KansasSan Diego StateMichigan StateOhio State, Michigan. Fine-tune that list even further, and the only teams to rank within the top 10 for both AdjO and AdjD (including Duke) are Kansas and San Diego State.

2. Defense wins championships

This point runs off the last but requires its own section, in my opinion. If you take a look at the list above of previous champions dating back to 2001, every single one of those teams ranked within the top 20 defensively, with 12 of the 19 within the top 10. When it’s gut-check time, being able to lock down on defense will generally lead to good things come March.

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3. More often than not, the NCAA Champion resides within the top 4 of ESPN’s BPI

Since the creation in 2007 of ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, a predictive metric utilized to measure the strength of a team’s performance moving forward, the team that ended up reigning supreme in the NCAA Tournament resided within the top 4 of the BPI in 10 out of the 12 years. The two outliers were 2011 and 2014 Connecticut.

Teams listed in the Top 4 of ESPN’s BPI ranking (according to current rank):

  1. Duke
  2. Kansas
  3. Gonzaga
  4. Michigan State

4. Average Margin of Victory (MOV) is one of the most robust identifiers

Under the same timeline listed above, 16 of the previous 19 championship teams had an average MOV within the top 25 nationally. The three outliers were…you guessed it…2003 Syracuse (#62), 2011 UConn (#39), and 2014 UConn (#33). Almost all of the 16 teams had a MOV of at least 10 points per game, with the largest margin being 2001 Duke at 19.7 and the lowest being 2007 Florida at 9.9.

Top 10 teams according to Average Margin of Victory (current rank):

  1. Gonzaga – 20
  2. San Diego State – 17
  3. Duke – 16
  4. Liberty – 15
  5. Dayton – 15
  6. Kansas -14
  7. ETSU -13
  8. SFA -13
  9. UNCG -13
  10. Arizona -12

5. NCAA Champions generally have the ability to shoot it well from deep

Of the 19 past champions, 15 shot the 3-ball at least average (ranked within the top 150), with the notable outliers being 2003 Syracuse (34.4%), 2011 UConn (32.9%), and 2013 Louisville (33.3%). Whether it be due to the 3-point line being moved back this offseason, or just a general lack of talent to shoot the ball, 3-point shooting has regressed across the country.

The current “average” percentage is 33.7% this season, compared to 34.8% last year. Duke currently sits at 35.5% on the season, good enough to be ranked 62nd in the country.

6. A non-analytic factor: Dominant guard play

Have you taken a look at some of the recent NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Players? How about Kyle Guy, Donte DiVincenzo, Joel Berry II, Ryan Arcidiacono, Tyus Jones, Shabazz Napier, and Kemba Walker, to name a few. The majority of recent MOP winners are all guards.

Even in years where they didn’t win the MOP, elite guard play from the likes of Ty Lawson, Quinn Cook, Josh Hart, Russ Smith, etc., propelled their teams to victory throughout March and early April.

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Regarding Duke, I think it’s fairly safe to say that it has an elite guard in the likes of Tre Jones, who is slowly becoming the runaway favorite for ACC Player of the Year. Throw in more consistency with Cassius Stanley, plus the ball-hawking of Jordan Goldwire, and the Blue Devils look to have one of the better backcourt groupings in the whole NCAA Tournament field.

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Stay tuned to Ball Durham for more updates, analyses, and opinions regarding the 2019-20 Duke basketball team.