History has that ever-so-annoying habit of repeating itself, and the reasons the Blue Devils likely won’t win their fourth consecutive ACC Tournament or go deep in the Big Dance are the same reasons they couldn’t get past North Carolina last Saturday night—offense and defense.
In spite of a win in Chapel Hill, Duke never led during regulation in either game. Austin Rivers' clutch game-winner went through the net after the buzzer sounded in Duke’s improbable comeback win in Chapel Hill and the home team never sniffed a lead, much less a win, at any meaningful time during the rematch in Durham. Had the Tar Heels kept their collective hands on the throttle back in February, Ol‘ Roy’s squad would have handily swept the annual rivalry series by double digits.
That may have cleared up the world view of Duke, a team that cleverly hides its weaknesses season-in and season-out. However, yet again, the only way Duke can beat North Carolina (or other elite teams with dominant inside games) is to shoot the ball brilliantly and to play much better defense.
Over the past ten years, Mike Krzyzewski has consistently built teams around shooting guards and forwards. He hasn’t had a dominant, physical inside player since Shane Battier, and that has limited Duke’s ability to go deep in the NCAA tournament when they play bigger, stronger teams or if they have a bad night shooting the basketball.
This shouldn’t come as big news as Duke has lost in the round of 32 or the Sweet Sixteen three times since 2008 and five times since 2005. Each time, the Blue Devils were a No.1 or a No. 2 seed and were sent home by third-, fourth-, fifth- and seventh-seeded teams.
When the perfect storm of bad defense and bad shooting happens against an elite team, the outcome is a bad loss like the one in Cameron Indoor Stadium to end the regular season or the Devils' earlier blowout loss to Ohio State.
Now, to Duke’s credit, they don’t have too many bad shooting nights. For the season they are scoring 78.7 points per game which ranks the Blue Devils second in the ACC and 11th in the nation.
They narrowly lead the ACC in field goal percentage (.463) with North Carolina (.462), N.C. State (.462) and Virginia (.461) nipping at their un-tarred heels. They also lead the conference in three-point shooting percentage at .387, but the Devils are ranked 24th nationally behind the likes of Kentucky, Florida, Missouri, Murray State, Creighton and Indiana.
In three of their five losses, Duke made three-pointers at the rate of .200, .286 and .290, well below their .387 average.
Some will argue that Duke beat North Carolina in February without shooting a high percentage. In that game, Duke shot 38% (their season average) from behind the arc while making 14 three-pointers. However, off that shooting Duke still trailed by 11 points at the five minute mark. During the last five minutes, the Blue Devils missed four three-pointers before Rivers’ game winner.
Duke’s other weakness is a surprising one—free throw shooting. Misses from the charity stripe played a key role in the close loss to Miami (59.1%) in February and things haven’t improved much as the regular ACC season wound down, against North Carolina the first time (65.4%), Maryland (56%), Florida State (65%) and round two against the Tar Heels (57.1%).
Then there's rebounding and defense. It’s no coincidence that Duke won the National Championship in 2010 when seven-footer Brian Zoubek emerged from the shadows and played a dominating role during the NCAA tournament. He had a major impact on the Blue Devils’ defense and rebounding—two areas exposed by North Carolina last Saturday night.
In 2009-2010, Coach K’s squad shot a similar number from behind the arc (38.5%), but they made 75.9% of their free throws (8th in the nation) while posting a rebound margin of 6.3 (14th). This season, Duke’s rebounding margin has shrunk to a meager 2.8—sixth in the ACC and 85th in the NCAA.
Zoubek, an Academic All-American, ended his career fourth on Duke's all-time list for offensive rebounds (276), and in his senior year he set the school's single-season rebounding record with 145. During Duke’s March Madness run, Zoubek hauled down 22 rebounds in the ACC tournament and 60 in the Big Dance.
Unfortunately, Duke doesn’t have a Zoubek this time around and that will prove to be a major stumbling block in any future match-ups against the likes of Kentucky, Syracuse, Ohio State or North Carolina.
As an astute basketball observer recently said after Saturday’s Duke/Carolina game: “One Plumlee is enough.” While Mason Plumlee has had a solid season with 9.2 rebounds and 11 points per game and brother Miles has been effective off the bench with 7.2 rebounds, neither can score as effectively as or guard Tyler Zeller, Anthony Davis or Jared Sullinger, to name a few.
If Duke is going to win another ACC Championship or go very far in the upcoming NCAA tournament, they must play better defense, get more rebounds and make free throws while maintaining their average pace from behind the three-point line.
If they don’t, the Blue Devils’ post season march is likely to be maddening in a bad way...again.