For all the talk of Duke basketball's limitations in height and bulk, there have been a surprising number of games in which the Blue Devils have allowed their opponents to dictate tempo. Slower games against ACC foes like Virginia and Clemson have played to the Devils' weaknesses, giving the team the appearance of a Ferrari stuck in two-lane traffic behind a garbage truck.
While there aren't a ton of large bodies on the Duke roster, there are a host of skilled, athletic players available to Devils coach Mike Krzyzewski. Bleacher Report even named them the deepest team in America during the offseason.
Owing to all the quick athletes on hand, Coach K promised in the preseason that his team would be pushing the pace. He told the Duke Chronicle's Ryan Hoerger:
“This team’s very athletic. It’s not your conventional team of two big guys, a wing, a shooter and a point guard. It’s not going to be like that. It’s going to be a team that has very good versatility. Guys are going to have to be able to guard multiple positions…and it’ll be a team that uses the full court, both offensively and defensively.”
We haven't seen it thus far, according to Hoop-Math.com. That site credits Duke with transition shots on only 21.6 percent of its possessions.
The Blue Devils' defensive struggles have been widely chronicled. But is that just as much a function of the offense?
More Possessions, Less Problems?
It sounds counterintuitive to suggest that Duke's defense will perform better if the game moves faster. After all, more possessions equal more shots equal more baskets, right? To illustrate the point, we need to look at two things: this season's results and Duke's roster.
First, the results. Check out the differences in Duke's offensive efficiency and defensive success when the tempo climbs above 70 possessions.
|Duke's 2013-14 Performances Separated by Pace|
|Pace||ORtg||Opp. eFG%||2nd Half +/-||Avg, KenPom rank||W-L|
|< 69 poss.||119.79||.521||-1||97.78||6-3|
While there's a strength of schedule discrepancy, the fact remains that Duke went 3-1 against KenPom top-100 teams playing faster and 3-3 against the top 100 playing slower than 70 possessions. The Vermont game, which sent large numbers of Duke fans into palpitations in a one-point Blue Devil win, featured only 65 trips.
Duke's offensive efficiency is better when the tempo is faster. Opponents aren't shooting as well. Duke forces more turnovers. Second-half scoring margins are better.
Running Hot and Cold
So why was the 95-60 throttling of NC State only the fourth time in 11 games—and first in five ACC contests—to move that fast?
Duke has eight players averaging more than 10 minutes per game. Five of them were RSCI Top 100 recruits and four were McDonald's All-Americans.
Three others—Matt Jones, Semi Ojeleye and Marshall Plumlee—average between 5.5 and 9.1 MPG. Jones and Plumlee were All-Americans and Ojeleye was a top-40 RSCI prospect.
All three have made defensive plays in their limited minutes, and all three are athletic enough to keep up with a higher-octane Duke offense.
Starting with the Virginia game, Coach K began tinkering with full-line changes, substituting players in five at a time. Duke has the luxury of doing so, where many opponents don't. Greater defensive pressure and more run-outs on offense are best done by teams with this many bodies to draw from.
After the Virginia game, Duke's star freshman Jabari Parker explained the mass substitutions when he said, “Coach wanted us to go as hard as we can, for as long as we can.” (h/t Scout.com's The Devils' Den) Keeping that mentality going at all times and using all the bodies at his disposal will allow Coach K to simply wear an opponent out in the final minutes of a game.
As a West Point man, Krzyzewski is surely versed in the necessity for a soldier to use every bullet in his gun. The more shots the Blue Devils fire at their opponents, the more likely those foes will eventually run for cover.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.