If one takes a cynical eye toward Duke’s fantastic 9-0 start to the season, the thing that pops out as ripe for criticism is the Blue Devils’ lack of rebounding.
A naysayer could argue that if the Ohio State game wasn’t at Cameron Indoor, or if Kentucky had an outside shooter, or if Louisville could score at all, then Duke might have lost one, two or all three of those games.
Of course, Duke didn’t lose those games, but it nevertheless stands that the blueprint to beating the Blue Devils is playing good perimeter defense, keeping pace with Duke’s offense and dominating the offensive and defensive boards.
While no team has been able to manifest all three of those elements thus far, it is still important that Duke does something about its subpar rebounding.
Duke is averaging just 35.6 rebounds per game, which ranks 159th in the nation. If that wasn’t bad enough, Duke’s rebounding percentage, which factors in rebounding opportunities based off of field-goal percentage, is 47.2. That’s bad enough to land Duke at 286th in the country (via StatSheet).
The closest thing to a bright spot in terms of rebounding for the Blue Devils is that the team ranks 74th nationally in defensive rebounds per game. Unfortunately, that just highlights how bad it has been on the offensive glass, where it ranks 159th (via StatSheet).
Mason Plumlee is certainly doing his part, averaging 11.3 rebounds to go with his 19.2 points. After him, however, Duke isn’t doing enough work under the glass. The second-leading rebounder is Ryan Kelly, but the 6’10” senior ought to contribute more than his 5.2 rebounds per game (via ESPN).
Duke’s tendency to go with a three-guard lineup isn’t helping things, either. Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook and Seth Curry have rebounding averages of 4.0, 3.4 and 1.9, respectively (via ESPN).
In watching the games, it becomes evident that what the stats support is the fact that Duke is truly susceptible to high-energy guards who crash the boards from their outside position. That isn’t to say that Cook and Sulaimon aren’t giving a good effort in terms of rebounding. It's just that Sulaimon is playing the small forward at an undersized 6’4”, and Cook is often looking to position himself for a fast break off of the defensive board.
As excusable as the stats might be, they still exhibit a crack in the Blue Devils’ armor. But even though the rebounding exists as a flaw in Duke’s game, it probably isn’t a fatal one.
Currently, Duke is averaging a rebounding edge against its opponent of minus-one. While that’s frightening, Coach Krzyzewski typically doesn’t have teams that dominate the boards. Only five teams in Coach K’s career have held a per-game average rebounding edge over opponents of five or more. The 2007 team outrebounded opponents by 4.9 rebounds per game. That year, Duke went 22-11 and lost in the first round of the NCAA tournament (via Duke Basketball Report).
Coach K’s 26 other teams, including this year’s, averaged a rebounding edge of 2.9 or lower. In fact, the 2005-06 team that won 30 games and had Sheldon Williams, one of Duke’s best all-time rebounders, standing in the paint had an average rebounding edge of minus-2.7. That made the 2005-06 squad the most outrebounded team of the Krzyzewski era, not including his first two years at Duke (via DBR).
So it makes sense to show concern over Duke’s lack of rebounding prowess, but it only presents a somewhat modest Achilles Heel. Plus, the season is early, and the return of Marshall Plumlee might take some of the burden off his brother, Mason. Currently, when Mason Plumlee or Ryan Kelly gets a breather on the bench, they are replaced by the shorter Josh Hairston or Amile Jefferson. When Marshall Plumlee returns from injury, it’s possible that his height will swing the rebounding stats away from the unfavorable end.
In all, Duke’s rebounding issues remain an area that teams can exploit, but it’s far from a fatal flaw. Given that Duke has been outrebounded six times this season and has yet to lose, opponents will have to do more than just outrebound the Blue Devils.