Duke has been a No. 1 seed in the previous two NCAA tournaments, but did not earn a similar distinction entering this year’s postseason. There are many reasons for this drop in seeding, not least the departures of offensive standouts Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and Kyrie Irving. But the bigger regression has come on the other end of the floor, as this year’s team has also failed to achieve the level of defensive prowess typical of Duke teams past.
In nearly all of the major statistical categories, the Blue Devils have been significantly worse on the defensive end this season. Looking at traditional metrics such as points allowed per game, Duke is giving up an average of 68.5 points, ranking 220th out of 345 Division I teams. By comparison, the two previous seasons saw the Blue Devils yield 64.7 and 61.0 points per game, good for 78th and 26th in the nation, respectively.
Defensive field goal percentage tells a similar story. After forcing team to shoot 40.5 percent and 40.1 percent the past two seasons, both of which ranked in the top 50 nationally, Duke has been allowing teams to convert on 43.3 percent of their shots from the field, which ranks 183rd in Division I and 10th in the ACC.
Despite these general defensive shortcomings, the Blue Devils have been successful defending the 3-point line this season. The tight man-to-man defense that has been a hallmark of head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s coaching style has allowed them to close out well on shooters. Opponents are shooting just 31.7 percent from downtown, ranking 59th in the country, better than last year’s 32.4-percent mark, but not as good as the national championship team’s clip of 28.4 percent, which was second in Division I.
Further exacerbating these defensive shortcomings is the fact that the Blue Devils are relinquishing 11.7 offensive rebounds per game, a dismal 250th in the country and 10th in the ACC. Although that number is an improvement over last year’s average of 12.8 offensive rebounds allowed, it shows how teams are victimizing Duke with second chance opportunities even after the defense performs adequately on the initial possession.
Even the more advanced statistical analysis that has been popularized by the rise of statistical analysis over recent years paints a picture of the Blue Devils’ defensive woes.
While points per game and rebounding can be affected by a team’s pace of play—higher tempo teams will yield more possessions thus allowing for more opportunities to score and grab rebounds for both teams—other metrics account for this. This is revealing in light of Duke’s statistical regression on the defensive end despite playing a slower pace than last season, averaging 68.8 possessions per 40 minutes compared to 70.2 last season.
Duke is allowing 0.99 points per possession, putting them 135th in the country. Although in the top half of programs nationally, that statistic reveals a significant setback for a team that gave up 0.92 points per possession in both of the preceding two seasons, placing it ninth and 13th in the nation, respectively.
Lastly, the effort on the defensive end has not proved very opportunistic either. Only 18.8 percent of opponents’ possessions are ending in turnovers compared to 20.9 percent of possessions last season. This season’s number is good for 240th amongst all Division I teams.
When asked for reasons that Duke may be struggling on defense, both players and head coach Mike Krzyzewski were hesitant to agree with the assessment shown by the statistics. Seth Curry said the team is not poor defensively, just inconsistent.
“We do a good job of playing really well defensively through stretches,” Curry said. “Then, sometimes, we’re just terrible. We just haven’t really been consistent. When we’re good, we’re really good. When we’re bad, it’s been really bad.”
Krzyzewski, on the other hand, said that he does not put much stock in all the statistics. He said that the numbers represent the team over the entire season, while the defense has been much improved recently. In the ACC tournament the Blue Devils held opponents to an average of 59.0 points per game, even though they fell in the semifinals.
“We’ve played pretty good defense. Who cares how you played in November and December,” he said. “Stats like that are so irrelevant, and to pay any attention to them is ridiculous. It’s been a season of constant improvement. It’s not the kind of defense that causes a lot of turnovers, so it’s not flamboyant. But, overall it’s been very solid.”
Krzyzewski also praised Tyler Thornton for his emergence as a defensive leader and his work on the opposition’s top offensive threat from the perimeter.
Over the next several weeks, Thornton and company will get a chance to prove their head coach right. With a lineup that sometimes features three smaller guards and lacks a long, athletic wing, the Blue Devils have struggled to stop attacking swingmen such as Harrison Barnes, Glen Rice Jr., and Michael Snaer.
Baylor’s Quincy Miller, UNLV’s Chace Stanback, and Kentucky’s Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are all highly touted players in this mold who Duke could encounter as it attempts to reach the Final Four from the South region.
Athletic big men who have the versatility to play inside and outside, such as Miami’s Kenny Kadji and North Carolina’s Tyler Zeller, have created problems for the Blue Devils this season. Baylor’s Perry Jones, Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Kentucky’s Anthony Davis possess similar skill sets and will pose a great challenge down the road in the tournament.
Only time will tell if Krzyzewski is right that too much attention is being paid to the team’s seasonal statistics. The Duke defense will soon get its chance to prove that it has improved against the bevy of offensive talent in the South region.
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