Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Is Duke better equipped for March?

It’s not much of a stretch to call the margin of Duke’s 76-41 defeat of then-No. 15 Gonzaga on Saturday downright stunning.

The Blue Devils stayed at No. 7 in The Associated Press’ poll this week, but Duke’s 9-1 start – and the blowout of a quality opponent - is begging the question of whether Duke is better equipped to advance in March than in recent years. The answer?


And no.

Here’s why.

Over the last five seasons, Duke has failed to advance past the regional semifinals in the NCAA Tournament. That’s not necessarily alarming in most programs.

But when you consider that the Blue Devils went to 10 Final Fours from 1986 to 2004, it’s clear that they have taken a step backward in March. One of their biggest problems in their last five NCAA Tournament losses has been rebounding.

In four of those five games, Duke was outrebounded, the lone exception being the 2007 loss to Virginia Commonwealth. The margin in the last two losses (49-34 against Villanova and 45-19 against West Virginia) was so significant that it gave the Blue Devils little chance of winning.

The bottom line is that Duke hasn’t been powerful enough to deal with physical teams from the Big East (Villanova and West Virginia) and players such as Glen “Big Baby” Davis of LSU and Paul Davis of Michigan State.

That should be different this season.

With Miles and Mason Plumlee, Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek in the post rotation, the Blue Devils have the muscle to avoid getting overpowered in the lane. Duke’s current rebound margin of plus-7.6 per game is its best mark since 1998-99.

That number is likely to decrease once the Blue Devils begin ACC play because the competition will be stronger. But Duke’s season rebound margin has been better than plus-3 just once since 1999-2000.

And against a Gonzaga team that started a 7-footer and brought a 7-foot-5 player off the bench, Duke posted a 41-29 rebounding advantage. Duke’s big guys also made their mark on defense.

"Their physical play bothered us as far as finishing shots,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few.

So it’s clear that in terms of ruggedness, Duke seems better prepared for March. But two deficiencies on the perimeter still leave questions for the Blue Devils as they seek their first Final Four trip since 2004.

Duke admittedly doesn’t have a player who’s good at creating his own shot. That’s not a problem most games because few opponents have three players as gifted at scoring as the Blue Devils’ Jon Scheyer, Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler.

But in Duke’s loss to Wisconsin in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the Blue Devils failed to create a basket for themselves with a chance to take the lead in the final minute. This team doesn’t have a Jason Williams to create instant offense, and that could pose problems in the NCAA Tournament.

Wisconsin also exposed Duke’s defensive weakness. Greg Paulus is gone, but the Blue Devils still don’t have a guard who can stop a strong perimeter player from scoring in the lane or from 3-point range.

Guard Trevon Hughes hurt the Blue Devils with his outside shot and then penetrated for more points, scoring 26 in a 73-69 win. It’s easy to predict that Duke would have similar problems stopping John Wall of Kentucky or Sherron Collins of Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.

So the Blue Devils have solved their biggest problem with their rebounding, so perhaps they’ll be better in March. But the question mark on the perimeter remains a nagging doubt as the team seeks to end its Final Four drought.

Ken Tysiac


Anonymous said...


Dook does this every year, they look like world beaters early on, then fall flat. Let's wait until March to see what happens (again).

Anonymous said...

Ken, what are you talking about? Most people believe Duke wears down, which is evidenced by their domination year after year in November/December and their failure in March. Duke is extremely thin in the backcourt and the number of minutes they are playing (even against lesser competition) is extremely high. Smith, Scheyer, & Singler average 33 or more minutes per game. That will only increase during ACC play, for example, against Wisconsin, Singler (40 mins), Scheyer (39), and Smith (37). In contrast, UNC with a more difficult schedule has only one player exceeding 30 mins / game (Ginyard), with the other starters’ average around 25 minutes. You are correct in that Duke has more decent big men this year; however, Duke is a jump shooting team which relies heavily on their 3 guards hitting outside shots. We will see if those guys have legs after a difficult ACC schedule. I wouldn’t put money on it.

Anonymous said...

Duke is better equipped than UNC and the rest of the ACC because their "thin" backcourt is superb.

However, let's revisit the team in February.