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Duke loss shows how quickly tournament performance can shift perceptions

Mar 17, 2012, 9:00 AM EDT

NCAA Basketball Tournament - Lehigh v Duke Getty Images

The NCAA Tournament is great at distorting reality.

While it’s the greatest playoff system in all of American sports, you must at least concede that the best team does not always cut down the nets.

To cap off a wild early-evening slate of games, Duke suffered what some may call the most embarrassing and unexpected loss in the history of the Coach K’s tenure in Durham.

A country rejoiced as C.J McCulloum led Lehigh through to the next round,  pulling off an improbable win that embodies what makes this tournament so unique.

But with the loss, one question must be raised:

How different, really, was this Duke team from many of their recent squads? More specifically, was this team really any less talented than the 2010 NCAA Championship winning Blue Devils team?

On the surface, the obvious answer is that, yes, the 2010 Blue Devils were a far better team.

They won the National Championship, so this should be a no brainer!

Yes, I understand that, but depending on how you interpret “better” and “team” in this context is important, so let’s  run some numbers on the two clubs so we can maybe get some good perspective here.

In 2010 the Blue Devils entered the post-season at 26-5 overall, 13-3 in the ACC.

The 2012 Blue Devils? They were 26-6, and also 13-3 in conference play.

Additionally, both teams went 7-4 in the regular season against the RPI top 50.

Basically, these teams had accomplished virtually the same. They had roughly the same number of good wins and bad losses, and everyone in the world hated them equally.

The similarities continue in some statistical areas as well.

This year’s Blue Devils team actually shot the ball better from the floor, with an 53 eFG percentage, a  few points better than in 2010 when they shot 50.5 percent.

Why?

While the 2010 team shot a bit better from the three-point line, you’d be surprised to know that this year’s team actually was better from inside the arc, with a 51 2pt percentage, compared to 47 percent in 2010. You can thank Austin Rivers’ dribble penetration for that.

Overall, the Blue Devils 2010 team were the game’s best in adjusted-offensive efficiency (123.5), which was a KenPom.com stat Duke apologists desperately held on to in March, arguing that their team was worthy of a number one seed based primarily on this figure.

Good for eighth best this season, the 2012 Blue Devils had an AdjO rating of 117, which actually ranks higher than top seeds Syracuse and North Carolina.

Defensively, things start to break up a bit, but not to the point where you could confidently say that this year’s Duke team should be placed on upset alert against a 15-seed. 2012 Duke allowed exactly one point-per-possession on 43.3 FG percentage, while 2010 Duke just 0.92 on 40 percent. Both teams were average and nearly identical in defensive rebounding.

Even without the numbers, I’m sure you’ve gathered that the difference between the 2010 Duke Blue Devils and 2012 Duke Blue Devils is rather negligible, or about 50 percent C.J McCollum and 50 percent the fate of a number of other championship contending teams.

Remember that in 2010 the Blue Devils peeved a number of people by grabbing the fourth number one seed. Nobody believed they were deserving,  but then Kansas got Ali Farokhmanesh’ed by Northern Iowa, Butler came out of the West, and West Virginia upset Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

Suddenly, the Blue Devils were the only one-seed in the Final Four, and it became their tournament to lose. They didn’t really have a star (although Kyle Singler assumed that role as best he could), played with a point-guard by committee (remember Jon Scheyer), and relied on a 7-0 Brian Zoubek to anchor the middle (a career four-point, five-rebound guy).

If anything, this year’s Duke Blue Devils team had more weapons, and were built at least get out of the first weekend. Guard oriented with a freshman that could create his own shot if the rest of the team was struggling, Rivers, in theory, could single-handedly save his team offensively when needed.

Last night Rivers tied for a team high 19-points. He shot only 5-14 from the floor, but it’s this type of player the Blue Devils did not have in 2010. They were far more reliant on offensive execution – a sustainable plan to win a National Championship, but oddly what can leave you susceptible to an early round exit if shots simply are not falling or match-ups do not work in your favor.

If Duke were to get past Lehigh, a trip to the South Regional final was perfectly within reach. Assuming they would meet Kentucky, it’s likely the run would end in Atlanta for this team, but even then we’d be talking about how respectable the Blue Devils season was, one that ended in only their second trip to the Elite Eight in seven years.

The tournament can be cruel and terrible for historical perspective, but these are the breaks in a field of 68.

Follow Nick Fasulo on Twitter @billyedelinSBN

  1. Bill Chance - Mar 17, 2012 at 10:26 AM

    Interesting article. There is no doubt that there is a lot of luck involved in winning the tournament. If you look at all champions, there is a moment where a game is decided on one shot or bounce of the ball. Most champions also had upsets clear the way for them to some extent.

    That said, there are some differences in the 2012 and 2010 Duke teams:
    The most obvious is the fact that Ryan Kelly was out – he’s the most important player on the squad (IMHO) because of the matchup problems he presents.

    Toughness

    Defence

    • fundamentalscount - Mar 17, 2012 at 11:14 AM

      It can be said that the best team did win!! The winner is the team on the floor that best used the resources at hand, and more closely played to its potential. Of course the winner is the only team that is 6-0 (these day’s) during the tournament.

      • imwhitewolf - Mar 17, 2012 at 5:06 PM

        On Friday, Lehigh was the better team. And I am a die hard Duke fan.
        What is troubling is the direction the program has taken the last decade. I say this knowing full well it would be next to impossible to maintain the level that Duke was at from the late 80s until the early 2000s. One reason for this is the talent level in college basketball is much better today than 20/25 years ago. Kids train differently. There are AAU programs, special schools, ie, Oak Hills, etc. Where once the mid majors may have had two or three good players in the entire conference now their teams have a couple really good players each.
        Back to the current team. This years squad did not play defense at all. I have never seen a Coach K coached team collapse the way this one did late in the season. Normally they get better as the year goes on. This team didn’t. They also reply on the three point shot way too much. Yesterday was a great example. Early in the game they were going inside and dominating the paint. So what do they do……start heaving up threes. Another example of the change in culture is this. They used to get fouls on the other teams big player. Yesterday McCollum picked up his second/third foul real quick early in the second half. Duke didn’t try to take advantage of that.
        A second problam is they lack athletism and have for quite a few years. All one needs to do is look at the trouble they’ve had when playing teams with more quickness than they.
        Another problem is one that the staff is responsible for and it has bitten them twice. The first time was when they recruited Deng and Livingston. They knew niehter of those player would be around long and after Deng left it left a hugh leadership hole the years he would’ve been a Jr/Sr. This cost them for at least three seasons. The second time was last year.I believe they shouldn’t have brought Kyrie Irving back for the tourney. The team had developed a good chemistry while he was injured. Bringing him back really hurt in the Arizona game. He was a very good player and a tremendous young man.
        This program has slipped the last decade, the 2010 championship not with standing. The coaching staff needs to take a serious look at the direction they’re going. I believe with the early exits the last two years you are going to starting hearing voices of discontent. It is hard to critize a man like Mike K. He isn’t just a great coach, he is a great teacher and an awesome guy.

      • astrozac - Mar 18, 2012 at 2:19 AM

        ^To be fair Coach K has a share of early exits with stellar teams 2000, 2002, 2006 plus last years Sweet Sixteen team, all capable/should have winning it all…

        whitewolf, like you I’m a Duke fan(Mizzou fan first). In addition to the teams lack of defense, I think the major factor for the loss was Ryan Kelly not playing. I think he’s a lynch pin for the team and without him they lacked what team unity they had…

        The other big weakness as you alluded to with athleticism, was the lack of a mid-size guy or a true small forward. Michael Gbinjie was the only one on the roster and he was the last guy off the bench. It hurts when you don’t have that defender who can help stop the opposing teams best player. Except for 2010, Duke has always had several guys on their rosters when they’ve won championships(Brian Davis, Grant Hill, Thomas Hill, Antonio Lang; Nate James, Mike Dunleauvy, Shane Battier). And with Miles Plumlee and likely Austin Rivers being the only departures, it will be many of the same players next year.

        As for the 2010 vs 2012 team? This years team an inside scoring threat in Mason Plumlee, with the 2010′s team main scoring all came from the three perimeter players. The 2010 did get lucky in their tourney matchups and Kyle Singler got hot at the right time of the year, to complement Smith and Scheyer while Zoubek collected boards left and right at the right time in his career. Al
        The other major factor 2010, Coach K only really had 8 guys he played and Scheyer, Smith and Singler played almost the whole games and all his starters were Jrs and Srs. Andre Dawkins and the Plumlees didn’t get that much time at all really, unless the bigs got in foul trouble.
        This season after Coach K started tinkering with the lineups, is when the team started to have more struggles. When he was starting Mas Plumlee, Kelly, Dawkins, Curry and Rivers with Thornton and Miles Plumlee the team had its most success…

  2. shsch - Mar 17, 2012 at 7:35 PM

    I think computers can be the bane of sports. I see lots of statistics for those who relish numbers but how about the intangibles like maybe:

    1. Lehigh was extra-motivated.

    2. Duke was a bit cocky and thinking about not only the next game, but the final four.

    3. Lehigh executed better.

    4. Coach K was out-coached

    5. Lehigh had C.J. McCollum the nation’s 5th leading scorer (and probably the only statistic that meant
    something this night).

    6. Statistics don’t win ball games, the players do (See 5.).

    So when you add up all the numbers, you get a total which has no meaning. And really, in this case, most of the numbers didn’t mean much either.

  3. avermaver - Mar 17, 2012 at 10:48 PM

    an NCAA tournament run is a run, sometimes an elite team stumbles out of the gate but hangs on to win and finds its form as the run progresses (UCLA when Edney hit that shot to beat Missouri way back when). and sometimes the elite team loses right off the bat and doesn’t get a chance to hit its stride. Ultimately there are 63 or is it 67 losers in this tournament so one shouldn’t necessarily make a big deal about when any particular team makes its exit, just let cinderella enjoy the fun til it comes crashing back to earth later on

  4. Thinly - Mar 18, 2012 at 11:17 AM

    First of all, hats off to Lehigh and McCollum, they were awesome.

    Setting up a straw man argument and then triumphing when you knock it down is unimpressive. Not sure that anyone is making the argument that the 2010 team was “far better” precisely because they won the championship.

    Whether the statistics align with this year’s iteration of the Blue Devils is largely irrelevant, as the same numbers can be more or less difficult to achieve depending on the ebb and flow of talent levels at one’s opponents’ programs, as well as the coaching staff’s strategies, i.e. hold the other team to X means we’ll only need X+1 to win.

    The 2010 guys were rigidly executing an offense that fit them better than this year’s approach. Coach K appeared not find the right offense for his guys this year, partly because Rivers and the Plumlees only began to play reliably deep into the season, and remaking the offense that late is pretty difficult. When you rely on the three and tip out rebounding, you will lose, it’s impossible to maintain the shooting percentages required to keep winning.

    Underrating Lance Thomas is expected, but he was some pretty strong glue. You mention Scheyer, Singler, and Zoubek, but how could you omit this 2010 Blue Devil guard’s stat line from the piece? 17.4 points, 2.8 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.2 steals per game, .441 field goal percentage (239-of-542), including .392 (60-of-153) from three-point range and 76.7 percent (122-of-159) from the free throw line. Could it be that Nolan Smith didn’t fit your narrative? Rivers could eventually be amazing, but nobody watching the Blue Devils was ever as confident in him as they were in Nolan Smith.

  5. opshuns - Mar 18, 2012 at 1:50 PM

    Too much Austin Rivers… Austin thinks he could do it on his own. Duke has always worked from the team concept. Austin, please be a one-and-out!

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