Coaching by the numbers

In his column yesterday, Ben Cohen asked Duke assistant coach Chris Collins an interesting question and got, well, a less than interesting response:

I got in touch with Chris Collins, Duke’s associate head coach, to ask whether Duke’s staff was a member of the growing ranks that swear by statistical analysis.

“The numbers we use a lot are turnovers and offensive rebounds,” Collins said, noting that he relies on statistics, especially those from the last five games, when he scouts opponents. “The other key is we try to get ourselves to the free-throw line. Those are probably the main ones that we look at—and obviously, well, shooting the ball.”

(I'm not sure it's fair to say that Collins' response was less than interesting. As a tempo-free stats nerd, it would have been nice to see him discuss effective field goal percentage, turnover percentage, offensive rebounding percentage and free throw rate, but that was probably an unreasonable expectation.)

But ignoring Collins' actual response in favor of educated guesswork, it's obvious that Duke's coaching staff either uses tempo-free statistics or simply has such an impressive, intuitive understanding of this team's strengths and weaknesses that it doesn't need to use statistics to understand the truth.

To wit:

1. For all the carping by fans about Duke's need to find more than three effective scorers (go to the Duke Basketball Report forums and just pick any thread discussing Duke's prospects for this season -- a good current one is "Can Duke Win The National Championship This Season?") and all the insistence that that scoring could very well come from Mason Plumlee, Miles Plumlee and/or Andre Dawkins, the Duke coaching staff has stubbornly continued to play the "offensively limited" Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas. But guess what? Duke already scores more points per possession than any other team in the country. And guess what else? In Duke's four losses this season, the offense averaged 1.05 points per possession, a number comparable to the 1.11 points per possession the team has scored in all games against ACC competition, but the defense gave up 1.17 points per possession compared to its against-the-ACC average of 0.95 points per trip. The stats agree with Duke's coaching staff: This Duke team does fine on offense, but the defense could use a little help. And, so far this season, that help has come from seven-footer Zoubek and defensive stalwart Thomas.

2. Back to Zoubek. Duke's coaching staff looks pretty good for sticking with the senior big man right about now, but Zoubek received a considerable amount of criticism from Duke fans early in the season. Only, the thing is, Zoubek hasn't really been any more effective in the last three games than he had been in the 10 conference games preceding them. All season long, Zoubek has led the team in plus/minus rating per 40 minutes (scoring differential with a player on the court minus scoring differential without that player on the court, adjusted to account for equal playing time), and he's been a part of five of the team's seven most effective line-ups. All season long, Zoubek has blocked 4.1 percent of shots taken by opponents while he's in the game, comparable to the more athletic Miles Plumlee. All season long, Zoubek has grabbed offensive rebounds on 23 percent of the shots missed by his teammates, the best offensive rebounding percentage in the country. For those curious, here's the list (which includes players playing only greater than 40 percent of their team's available minutes):

  1 Brian Zoubek, Duke                            23.0   7-1 260 Sr

2 DeMarcus Cousins, Kentucky 22.8 6-11 260 Fr

3 Anthony Johnson, Fairfield 17.4 6-8 245 Sr

Aside from Kentucky's Cousins -- a man-beast who will be a top-three pick in the NBA Draft -- no one is even close to Zoubek. Here's the point: At times this season, Zoubek has looked awfully awkward on the court, but he's always been effective. For the past three games, Zoubek has been doing exactly what he's been doing all season, only he's stayed out of foul trouble and been able to do it more. He's averaging nearly 27 minutes per game over the last three contests after getting only 15 minutes per in Duke's prior 10 ACC matchups -- largely because he's only committing five fouls per 40 minutes, down from the 11.5 fouls per 40 he was picking up over the earlier part of the conference season. (And I'd forfeit my geek credentials if I neglected to point out that, of all Zoubek's tempo-free stats, only minutes per game and fouls committed per 40 minutes have changed significantly over the last three games.)

3. As long as I've closely followed the team, Duke's defensive game plan has been to concede points to opposing big men in favor of  limiting three-pointers made by the opposition. And while it may be frustrating to watch the likes of Tracy Smith and Gani Lawal (this year), Trevor Booker (last year) and -- blast from the past alert! -- Marco Killinsgworth have career games against Duke's defense, it works. While Duke's defense may not be as good as its offense, the Blue Devils are still ranked 11th in the country in defensive efficiency. Opponents shoot 27.4 percent from three-point range against Duke, and only 18.7 percent of the points allowed by the Blue Devils come from long range. Though opponents shoot 40.8 percent against Duke (62nd in the country), their effective field goal percentage allowed (where made three pointers count for 1.5 made shots) ranks 25th in the country, and allows a team that is not particularly adept at forcing turnovers (84th in the country), keeping opponents off the offensive glass (194th) or preventing opponents from getting to the free throw line (102nd) to have a very good defense.

So while Collins might not spout tempo-free terminology like Ken Pomeroy or John Gasaway, he and his boss (along with fellow assistants Steve Wojciechowski and Nate James) coach like they very well could.

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