The task at hand: 2012-13 Duke basketball preview

Eleven times in the past twenty-six years Duke has advanced at least as far as the Final Four. So if you’re a Blue Devil fan, and you’re under the age of 35, Duke has always been elite. It’s all you’ve ever known. Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner, Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Jason Williams, J.J. Reddick – all National Players of the Year over that same time-span. What this also means as that you likely have very little perspective. Your sense of a successful season is skewed. But that’s fine. That’s what Mike Krzyzewski has created. Following last year’s stunning defeat to No. 15 seed Lehigh, the largest of the Duke fan sites chose to shut down its forums for a few days. This is an intense fan base which expects conference titles. They expect deep runs into the Tourney. And last year they didn’t get either.

Then, after that hugely disappointing season, Duke players heard their names called with the No. 10 and No. 26 picks in the draft. But Duke fans expect that too. They expect to lose players to the NBA. And they expect to reload. Welcome to the 2012-13 season, and the task at hand hasn’t changed.

What went well last year: For the 5th straight year Duke’s offense was ranked among the top-11 in the nation (and No. 1 in the conference-only games). Just six games into the season they lit up an average Michigan defense to the tune of 82 points in just 64 possession. That 1.28 points per possession (PPP) would turn out to the most anyone scored on the Wolverines all year. And although they followed that up two games later with their 2nd worst performance of the season, scoring only 0.95 PPP against Ohio State, the Blue Devils would go more than three months before being held under a point per possession again (in their semi-final loss to FSU in the ACC Tournament). It happened only twice all year. Even in 2010, when they won the National Title and had the No. 1 offense in the nation, Duke was held below a point per possession more times than last season. In other words, their offense was good early, good in the middle, and consistent throughout. At least until Ryan Kelly went down with a foot injury (more on that in a moment).

They did it by being consistently solid in the four factors. Their eFG% was 38th nationally (out of 345 Division I teams). They also ranked 38th in fewest turnovers. Their offensive rebounding was 68th nationally, and they got to the free throw line at a higher rate than all but 12 teams.

They had eight players who played at least 25% of the team’s minutes, and all eight had an offensive rating of 104.7 or higher (D1 average was 100.8). Ryan Kelly had the 2nd highest offensive rating in the ACC, Miles Plumlee was the conference’s best offensive rebounder (7th best OR% nationally), and they had three players who made at least 38% of their 3s for the season.

What went poorly last year: Ryan Kelly’s foot. Kelly injured his foot (which would later require surgery) in the practices leading up to the ACC Tournament. Duke would go on to play three more games, and Kelly missed them all. In those three games Duke scored 1.02 per possession vs Virginia Tech, 0.94 vs Florida State and 1.01 vs Lehigh. Duke played 34 games last season, and the three without Kelly ranked 27th, 34th and 28th in terms of scoring output.

But the real problem was defense, or lack thereof. In the decade for which advanced stats have been available Duke never once ranked worse than 20th in the nation in defensive efficiency, and only three times were they ranked outside the top-10. Last year’s team? 70th. They were a middle of the road defense in a middle of the road conference. That’s not Duke.

The issues were primarily on the perimeter where the Duke guards simply couldn’t guard anyone. They consistently allowed penetration. The strategy was the same – don’t give up threes, force players to beat their man one-on-one, etc… – but the execution was bad. The points allowed when their defense broke down due to the penetration were a killer. Teams made 47% of their 2s against Duke, and no Duke team in over a decade has been worse. The inability to pressure the ball and stay in front of their men also meant that Duke was poor (251st) at forcing turnovers. They allowed too many shots, and too many of them went in. It was shocking to watch.

What they lost: For the 5th time since 1999 (and 2nd straight year), Duke had at least two players drafted in the 1st round of the NBA draft. Austin Rivers went at No. 10, and Miles Plumlee at 26. Plumlee was the only senior on the roster.

Austin Rivers had an up and down season. Early, his defense looked like that of a freshman, but by season’s end he had developed into a solid defensive player. Offensively, his strength was taking people off the dribble. He had arguably the best one-on-one moves in the ACC, with an insane crossover (made much more effective because he also had counter-moves associated with the crossover). Even FSU’s Michael Snaer – who was the best perimeter defender in the ACC – couldn’t stay in front of him. He could also finish through contact. The problem was that he never really found his role. He was a good (36.5 3pt%) but not great shooter. He went to the line more than any other Blue Devil but converted (66%) at a below average level. He used more of the possessions and took more of the shots than any other Duke player, but he had a lower assist rate than three other guards. Basically, he played like a freshman, albeit a tremendously talented one.

That kind of loss could be debilitating for a team hoping to contend for a national title. But that ignores his personality. It assumes that one plus one equals two. As we’ve seen from recent comments, the locker room might actually benefit from him being gone. There’s certainly a segment of the Duke fans who believe this. Rivers had the cockiness of a basketball star, but he didn’t have the charisma. So it goes.

The other major loss was Miles Plumlee. He played a career best 51% of the team’s minutes, and easily had his best season in Durham. He entered the season shooting 53% from the field and then proceeded to make 61% of his shots. Also, as mentioned above, his offensive rebounding – for the 2nd straight year – was elite. He also established career highs in defensive rebound %, block % and free throw rate.

The other loss was Michael Gibinije, the consensus No. 28 recruit from the 2011 class. The lightly used freshman transferred to future ACC foe Syracuse.

What they have: Duke returns four of the six players who played more than half the minutes, though it is expected that Andre Dawkins will sit the season out and redshirt. This makes sense as Dawkins entered college at a young age, and is still dealing with the fallout surrounding his family tragedy.

The other returners who played a lot are all seniors as well – Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly. This is the known core. We know what they’re going to provide. Plumlee is an athletic freak who will posterize plenty of opponents, rebound like a madman, and miss a bunch of free throws. Kelly’s perimeter game blossomed as a junior, and now he’s a huge offensive mis-match. And Curry can shoot. He didn’t fill it up like he did as a sophomore, but he’ll also likely play much more of this season off the ball rather than being forced to play point. This is a solid trio, but basketball isn’t a saxophone/bass/drums game. It’s the rest of the roster which will determine how far this team goes.

The most important player is Quinn Cook. Cook had to sit out Duke’s trip to China and Dubai while he healed from a high school injury. With the missed practices he never seemed to find his role last year. But now it’s clear. He needs to run this team. He’s been doing that – in an abbreviated form – at the famous NC Pro-Am this summer. For Duke to be successful, he has to be the point guard. Seth Curry needs to play off the ball. And Tyler Thornton needs to provide a counter-punch off the bench.

Josh Hairston is the other player who saw time off the bench. He was much bigger and stronger as a sophomore, but still couldn’t crack the Plumlee(s), Kelly stranglehold on front line minutes. Will he this year?

Two more returners are both redshirt freshman. Alex Murphy reclassed to get into the 2011 class (after previously delaying a year to come in older). The most optimistic see him as the next Kyle Singler. But that’s a rare thing. If he’s a significant portion of the player Singler was, he’ll be solid. The other redshirt was MP3 – the youngest Plumlee (Marshall). Like Mason, he’s athletically gifted for his size (finished 2nd in the McDonald’s All American dunk contest), and now he’s had a year to bulk up. His high school stats weren’t all that impressive, but the word is that his post skills eclipse those of both his older brothers.

The newcomers are Rasheed Sulaimon and Amile Jefferson. Sulaimon (consensus No. 12 recruit) likely enters Duke as their best perimeter defender, which could earn him some serious minutes. Arguably the best 2-guard in this class, Sulaimon is very smooth while also being aggressive. He has the frame of an NBA 2-guard (6-4 with very long arms). It would have been fascinating to see him compete with Andre Dawkins for minutes, as they play the same position but are polar opposites as players. With Dawkins out, Sulaimon will get serious minutes regardless. Joining him in this class is Amile Jefferson (consensus No. 21 recruit). For now, he’s a hybrid high post/low post forward who has the ability to develop into a high end PF, assuming he can bulk up. If not he has the game of a solid ACC small forward. He’ll have a harder time earning minutes than Sulaimon.

Duke also picked up the most attractive of the transfers – Rodney Hood from Mississippi State, but he’ll have to sit until next year. And there’s Todd Zafirovski, a walk on who earned a scholarship, which automatically means the Duke faithful will go crazy whenever he enters the game – which won’t be often.

Where they’re going: It’s just another year in Durham. This is the best team in the ACC. They have a combination of youth and experience, size and outside shooting. The wildcards are defense and what happens at the point. If Cook (or anyone for that matter) can consistently get inside the defense off the dribble then Duke has all the pieces in place to once again be top-5 offense nationally. Defensively, the answer isn’t so simple. Coach K has had a year to digest it, but ultimately, these are the same pieces who couldn’t stop anyone last year. Sulaimon will make a difference, as will Cook being ready in the pre-season. But if they can’t get some help on the perimeter, then there might be some more Duke message boards shutting down during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tourney.