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February 19, 2010, 03:28 PM ET
Duke collapsing, and other rites of spring (Updated!)

by John Gasaway

Yesterday the Duke student newspaper, The Chronicle, posted an excellent piece on the Blue Devils’ recent habit of growing weaker as each season progresses, and before going any further I just want to say one thing. Seeing today’s undergraduates comfortably and indeed unselfconsciously tossing around “per-possession this” and “tempo-free that” brought tears of joy to this old duffer’s eyes. If this single article is any indication, the future would appear to be in good hoops-analysis hands.

Now, as for the actual content of the piece I did have two additional reactions.

One, of course the declines have been real. More than real, in each of the past two seasons they’ve been unbelievably in-your-face dramatic. Good grief, last year I was running around screaming with my arms above my head (”Decline! Decline!“) but no one listened because, hey, the Blue Devils had re-jiggered their lineup and everything was going to be A-OK!

The Jon Scheyer-Elliot Williams experiment is working so well that Duke is quite pleased with its progress going into the postseason.

“The lineup we’ve had the past few games is a good look for us,” Scheyer said. “Elliot is doing a good job for us as a ball defender.”

Duke’s Kyle Singler said the Blue Devils “are at a good spot right now.” He added that Williams has helped the Blue Devils’ ball pressure.

If anything the collapse in 2008 was even more sudden. Duke barreled out of the ACC gate that year going 10-0, outscoring opponents by 0.19 points per trip. Over their last six conference games, however, that per-possession scoring margin shrank to 0.01, as the Devils went 3-3.

So yes, this is an official Punxsutawney-level ritual until further notice. If you’re a Duke fan, right now you are quite rightly holding your breath.

Which brings me to my second point. It is of course entirely possible, in theory, that Mike Krzyzewski is tiring his stars out. And if that is indeed the case then Duke really is doomed, because the minutes are even more concentrated this year in Durham than they have been the past couple seasons.

There is a bench this year, right?
Percentage of total team minutes played by Duke’s five leaders in playing time, 2008-10

      Pct of Total
2008      71
2009      68
2010      75

Then again North Carolina last year gave 73 percent of its minutes to just five players and from my chair the Tar Heels looked pretty spry in late March and early April. 

Which, again, doesn’t rule out a fatigue-based Duke Collapse theory entirely. Maybe Coach K just demands so goll-dern much from his players, what with all that floor-slapping, blatantly un-Kansas-State-like motion on offense, actual effort on defense, etc. Or maybe his practices are too frequent and/or intense. There could be any number of sound fatigue-based reasons why the Blue Devils have been falling apart like a cheap rain coat every year.

But if sheer minutes are the culprit, it’s not just Duke fans that should be worried right now.

There are benches this year, right?
Percentage of total team minutes played by five leaders in playing time for various big scary teams, 2010
Teams borrowed from top four lines of this morning’s Bracketology at ESPN.com–thanks, Joe! 

            Pct of Total
Georgetown      82
Ohio St.        80
Duke            75
Temple          74
Gonzaga         73
West Virginia   73
Syracuse        72
Purdue          71
Kentucky        70
New Mexico      70
Kansas          69
Vanderbilt      68
BYU             67
Kansas St.      66
Villanova       64
Michigan St.    60
 

Duke skews toward one end of the minutes-concentration spectrum, sure. But they’re far from the most extreme case and, anyway, the Blue Devils are more or less equivalent in this respect to teams like West Virginia, Temple, and Gonzaga. If Coach K’s team really is doomed purely because of how their minutes have been distributed, at least they have company.

Update: In doffing my cap to the “excellent” piece in the Chronicle I was saluting tempo-free-savvy young people. At the same time it’s true that the particular method that was used for measuring performance in said piece was by its very nature pretty likely to come up positive for “decline.” Duke of course plays North Carolina as their last game every year. Then they play in the ACC tournament, wherein each successive opponent is likely to be a little bit tougher. Lastly the Blue Devils move on to the NCAA tournament. It is a gauntlet. If you measure a team’s performance until they lose in the NCAA’s and if you don’t take into consideration the strength of the opponent, you may well chart a line for performance that trends downward.

So, at the risk of parroting the links I included in my post, let me be clear about what I mean by “decline.” I am looking at ACC regular-season play only.

Last season Duke’s defense allowed ACC opponents just 0.80 points per possession over their first nine games. Then over their final seven conference games, the Blue Devil D allowed 1.12 points per trip. As for the numbers I trot out above with relation to 2008, one interesting feature there is that the 10-game happy time took in the road game at Final Four-bound UNC, whereas the six-game time of woe included the season-ending rematch against the Heels at Cameron Indoor.    

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