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Data dive: Duke men's basketball may be 'balanced,' but will Coach K utilize his depth?

In the first 39 years Mike Krzyzewski coached at Duke, the Blue Devils never played a 10-man rotation.
In the first 39 years Mike Krzyzewski coached at Duke, the Blue Devils never played a 10-man rotation.

The theme of the 2019-20 Blue Devils is clear from the onset.

‘Balance’—the antithesis of the spectacle that was Zion Williamson and company one year ago—was repeatedly used throughout preseason media day Monday.

“I think we’re going to have a real balanced team,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “We’ll have more guys capable of playing at the level that we need in order to win.... Everyone feels like they have a shot [to play] and they do. The competition has been good in the workouts that we’ve had.”

For the first time since the 2012-13 campaign, the Blue Devils are not bringing in a top-three recruit, according to ESPN’s class rankings. Duke still earned a top-two haul, but unlike past classes, the incoming group is deep and was built for the long-haul, with Vernon Carey Jr.—the No. 6 recruit—the only sure-fire one-and-done. 

Krzyzewski will have at his disposal three five-star recruits—Carey, Matthew Hurt and Wendell Moore—alongside four-star Cassius Stanley. In addition, Duke returns recently-named captains Tre Jones, Javin DeLaurier and Jack White, supplemented by juniors Alex O’Connell, Jordan Goldwire and sophomore Joey Baker.

That amounts to 10 Blue Devils with strong cases for a seat at the table.

Now take a second to reread the above quote. More specifically the following part: “Everyone feels like they have a shot [to play] and they do.” 

`Coach K never plays a 10-man rotation,` you’re probably thinking to yourself. If that thought is correct, then at least one player inherently will be relegated to a developmental role. I had the same thought a few weeks ago and after analyzing Blue Devil rotation data during the Krzyzewski era—from Sports Reference—it turns out that common comment has merit. 

Duke has never utilized a 10-man rotation under Krzyzewski and since 2000, the Blue Devils have averaged the second-thinnest rotation among current Power Five teams.

For the purpose of this column, a player is considered part of the rotation if he played in at least 20 percent of the team’s minutes during the season—i.e. averaged eight minutes per game across the whole season. The distribution of Duke’s rotation size can be seen in the following histogram. 

The Blue Devils have utilized an average of 8.0 men per contest since the 1980-81 season—Krzyzewski’s first at the helm. I would argue that this number is not fully representative of the true amount of players Coach K plays per contest, and is likely a high estimate due to injuries and Krzyzewski’s tendency to vary his bench usage. 

For example, the model indicates Duke played nine men per contest last season. However, Goldwire essentially filled White’s minutes during the second half of the season as the Blue Devils stuck to an eight-man rotation. 

Another example is the fact that Kyrie Irving qualified during the 2010-11 season, despite playing just 11 games. Irving’s absence created minutes for Tyler Thornton, who at 23 percent likely would not have made the cut otherwise (see graph below).

Whether or not you think that eight is a high estimate of Duke’s rotation size, Krzyzewski objectively consistently fields one of the thinnest benches in the sport. 

The Blue Devils have never relied upon a 10-man rotation during Krzyzewski’s tenure. Since the 1999-00 season, 61 of the 65 current Power Five programs had a minimum of one season with at least a 10-deep lineup. The other four teams: Duke, Ohio State, Syracuse and Wisconsin. 

The following table shows the five shallowest and deepest Power-Five rotations during the same span:

Assuming you’ve stuck with me so far, it should come as no surprise that the Blue Devils have averaged the second-shallowest rotation across the Power Five—utilizing 1.5 fewer men per game than Leonard Hamilton’s Florida State squads.   

But, as stated earlier, this Duke team is not a one-and-done-laden team like we’ve seen during the past decade.  

A significantly less talented freshman core than last season, surrounded by talented veterans who all played a part during the 2018-19 campaign could lead to an extremely balanced lineup should Coach K choose to buck his own trend. 

Otherwise, who will be left out of the equation?

I’d be surprised if Carey, DeLaurier, Hurt, Jones, Moore and O’Connell are not the top six, but from there, it’s anyone’s guess. 

Will it be White? White was a monster on the boards and a constant threat from deep during nonconference play. However, Krzyzewski was not afraid to sit his captain after an 0-for-28 streak from downtown, as White ended up scoreless across five postseason contests.

It could be the guy who pushed White out of the rotation—Goldwire. Goldwire and Jones menaced opposing guards down the stretch as the Norcross, Ga., native provided a spark in nearly every game he entered, including the 23-point comeback against Louisville. But his shooting stroke was a liability and his and Jones’ shared weakness was exploited down the stretch.

The true wild card entering the season is Baker, who was expected to redshirt last season until Coach K inserted him against Syracuse seemingly out of nowhere. Baker took a mere four shots across 18 minutes, but off the court guarded Reddish and Barrett every day during practice and was a top-20 recruit in the Class of 2019 before reclassifying. 

Lastly, how could Krzyzewski bench Stanley? The Los Angeles native is far and away the most well-known freshman and that attention has only been magnified since he broke Williamson’s record for the highest vertical in program history. Stanley’s skills are much less polished than his fellow recruits, but it’ll be hard to bench that athleticism. 

When all is said and done, each player will most likely get their shot to make an impact. Will this be Krzyzewski’s first true 10-man rotation? 

Barring any injuries I’m going to go with “Yes.” 

Editor’s note: All of the data for this article was collected from Sports Reference’s college basketball database. Seasons with missing data were removed. For the Duke histograms, only 33 of Krzyzewski’s 39 seasons are visualized due to omitted data. In addition, every Power Five team except Northwestern has at least one omitted season, but each team has at least 14 of the 20 seasons complete. To view the code and dataframes generated for this analysis visit my GitHub repository. 

Graphics courtesy of Selena Qian  

Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle's men's basketball season preview. Find the rest here.

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