College Basketball Handicapping: Why Duke is Struggling
by Robert Ferringo - 1/13/2014
Duke Blue Devils college basketball sucks right now.
Duke’s demise would normally lead to glee for the overwhelming majority of college basketball fans, myself included. The Blue Devils are smug villains and the most reviled program in the country. But while their shaky start in the ACC should be the source of great enjoyment, I instead find myself annoyed that a team I projected No. 1 in the country in my preseason power rankings is faltering.
Duke has lost two of its first three ACC games, falling at Notre Dame on Jan. 4 and dumping a game at Clemson last Saturday. The Blue Devils are 1-2 in the bloated 15-team ACC and are already two games behind league leaders Syracuse, Pittsburgh and Virginia. Duke has issues on both ends of the court, and I am skeptical that they are the national title contender I expected.
The Blue Devils host Virginia tonight in what has become a critical game for both teams’ conference title hopes. The Cavaliers are 3-0 in league play but are posted as 6.5-point underdogs in Cameron Indoor. Virginia is 10-2-1 against the spread in its last 13 trips to Duke, but 65 percent of the public is backing the host Blue Devils tonight.
According to 5Dimes, Duke is currently 12-to-1 to win the national championship. But heading into tonight’s action, the Blue Devils are just No. 23 in the Associated Press poll, congruous with about a No. 5 seed if the NCAA Tournament started today.
Duke’s struggles this year come down to a basic, fundamental problem: they can’t stop anyone. Duke is rated in the Top 100 in Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency rankings, and they are in the top half of college basketball in points allowed (No. 148 at 68.9 points per game) and 3-point defense (No. 33 at 29.3 percent allowed). But those are just numbers. Anyone that’s watched this team play against equal competition knows they are feeble on the defensive end of the court.
The defensive woes start in the post. Duke doesn’t have a true center in its regular rotation. Sophomore Amile Jefferson was expected to build on his promising freshmen year as the starter on the block. But at just 6-foot-9 and a generous 210 pounds, the thin Jefferson has hardly been a deterrent at the rim. Jefferson is only playing 18 minutes per game and has just nine blocks this year.
The only other player on the roster taller than Jefferson is 7-foot sophomore Marshall Plumlee. But Plumlee is logging just six minutes per game and has been a non-factor.
That is a problem that can’t be solved for the Blue Devils. They only have two guys bigger than 6-8, and that is simply not going to suffice against teams with physical post players like Syracuse and Pittsburgh in league play, and teams like Arizona, Kansas Michigan State nationally. An inability to matchup with opposing post players is really only part of the problem. The bigger issue is that the Blue Devils cannot keep opposing guards from getting to the basket.
Either way, inability to defend the rim is the No. 1 problem for Duke right now, and it is one I don’t think they can solve.
Further, freshman forward Jabari Parker was one of the reasons that so many people were penciling Duke back into the Final Four. And, for the most part, he has lived up to the hype, averaging 19.5 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. He’s shown unlimited range and is fearless on the offensive end.
But Parker is part of the problem for the Blue Devils on the defensive end because he cannot guard anyone. I know some advanced statistical metrics actually have him as a plus defender. But that’s ridiculous. Parker is a mediocre on-ball defender and is terrible at playing his man off the ball.
Duke plays forwards Parker and Rodney Hood together. They are both 6-foot-8 and are explosive scorers, combining for 38.1 points per game. But the problem is that they both play the same position. They are both swing forwards that are more comfortable on the perimeter. So instead of having one wing paired with a power forward that can defend and rebound, the Blue Devils instead go with these young, soft players. All that does is exacerbate their problems in the post.
Playing Parker and Hood together wouldn’t be as big of a deal if the Blue Devils had a dominant center to clean up the messes behind them. But they don’t. And the result is a Duke defense that simply cannot get stops consistently against teams of equal caliber.
Finally, another issue with the Blue Devils is their backcourt rotation. Point guard Quinn Cook has been solid all season. (Though he is another generally weak on-ball defender. He sells out for steals too often and can’t stay in front of good point guards.) The shooting guard spot seems to be capably manned by a rotation of Andre Dawkins, Rasheed Sulaimon and Tyler Thornton.
Talent is not the issue. And if you look at the numbers, every one of those guards has performed well this year. But, again, watching the team tells a different story. These guards have zero chemistry, and their skill sets don’t really compliment one another.
Sulaimon has been a disappointment. He averaged 11.6 points per game as a freshman and was expected to build on that. But his scoring is down (7.2 PPG), and his minutes have been erratic. He played 36 minutes in a win over Georgia Tech on Jan. 7 but then logged just 12 in that Jan. 11 loss at Clemson. I’m not sure what has been going on behind the scenes, but Sulaimon lost his starting gig and doesn’t seem like he is in good form.
Further, Dawkins was a key returnee after a redshirt year. He’s a fifth-year senior and former two-year starter that is the most efficient offensive player on the team. He is averaging nine points per game and shooting 44.4 percent from deep. And he’s doing that despite playing just 15 minutes per game, No. 7 on the team. I have no earthly idea why he isn’t logging somewhere between 25-30 minutes per game.
Finally, there is Thornton. He is getting nearly 20 minutes per game, which is more than Dawkins, and Thornton has been more consistent getting his minutes than Sulaimon. Thornton has to play because he’s the only guard that can play any defense. But he is a non-factor on the offensive end at just 2.9 points and 2.3 rebounds per game.
Duke had forgivable losses to Kansas and Arizona, and no one batted an eye. They had odd, close home wins against Vermont (91-90) and East Carolina (83-74) that most people shrugged off. But the ugly ACC losses – in which the Blue Devils blew leads while being completely outplayed in the second half – have the fan base and Duke backers in full-blown panic mode.
I think that Duke supporters have a right to worry. Duke has been a productive team to bet on this year. They are 9-7 against the spread overall, which is solid for such a public team, and they are 4-2 ATS in their last six games. I still think they will continue to overwhelm opponents in Cameron Indoor. Duke gets too much love from the officials in its own gym and can bombard opponents with lethal 3-point shooting.
But my long-term prospects aren’t as rosy.
Current ACC favorite Syracuse is a terrible matchup for the Blue Devils because of SU’s size and athleticism. The same can be said for long-time Duke nemesis North Carolina. Because Duke can’t physically dominate opponents, they are ripe for upsets at the hands of other ACC rivals. We’ve already seen that play out with Notre Dame and Clemson, two teams that I feel are fringe NCAA tournament teams.
I also do not think that Dukehas the goods to add another ACC banner to their rafters – something I was certain they would do at the start of the year – and if this team isn’t careful they could fail to make the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in the last eight years.
As a Syracuse diehard fan, all of this weakness does make me giddy. However, as a college basketball handicapper I am definitely wary of betting on or against this team as the season progresses. We will see how they try to rectify their issues as the conference season wears on.
Robert Ferringo is a member of the Basketball Writers Association of America and is one of the best college basketball handicappers in the country. He has posted an incredible five straight winning college hoops seasons and has banked over $22,000 in profit over the last four seasons. Robert has 15 of 18 winning college basketball months and you can sign up for his college basketball predictions here.
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