The Hidden Truth: Despite TOs, Duke stats look solid

Originally Published: December 14, 2006
By Andy Glockner | ESPN.com

As yet another ball kicks off a Duke player and flies out of bounds, you almost can hear the gnashing of teeth from across Blue Devils Nation. Duke has too much youth, they say. The Blue Devils are getting too little from Greg Paulus and Josh McRoberts. They lost too much when J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams left.

The buzz is that this just isn't a "vintage" Duke team -- despite the fact that the Blue Devils are 9-1 and ranked sixth in the country. It's a team that struggles to score, struggles to hold on to the ball, struggles to force tempo and get out on the break. Basically, the season's first month has been a struggle.

Funny that no one seemed to say these things at the start of last season, when the Blue Devils had a stretch when they held off Drexel, beat Memphis by three, topped D.J. White-less Indiana by eight, beat Virginia Tech on a 40-footer and slogged past Penn, never compiling more than 78 points in any of those contests.

It appears that perception is everything.

The truth about this Duke team is that, statistically speaking, it does almost everything as well or better than last season's Blue Devils. It shoots 3s at a significantly better percentage, it has assists on a higher percentage of baskets, it gets to the foul line at a higher rate, and it rebounds on the offensive end much, much better. All anyone sees, though, is the turnovers, and assumes that's the sole reason Duke has been unable to put large numbers on the scoreboard.

There's a lot more to it, though.

The turnover problem definitely has been an issue. The Blue Devils are in the bottom 50 teams in the country, turning it over on 26.0 percent of their possessions. It's hard to score consistently when you give away more than one out of every four possessions.

Greg Paulus
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesPaulus needs to get fully back up to speed and needs to make some better decisions with the ball.
"I think the No. 1 reason [for the reduced offensive output] has been turnovers," Duke assistant coach Chris Collins said. "Our assist-to-turnover ratio is as poor as it has been in years. … Very rarely are we in negative [territory, with more turnovers than assists]. Having young players, having Paulus injured, not having a true point has been a big reason. It lessens your shot to get shots at the basket if you turn it over 20 times a game."

That should be somewhat fixable. It's true that the Blue Devils have played only two teams thus far that even rank in the top 100 in the nation in defensive turnover rate, so there should be some concern heading into the ACC slate and its high caliber of play. That said, the Blue Devils committed only 11 turnovers (and had 21 assists) in their last game, against George Mason, to provide some evidence of improvement. As Paulus, one of the biggest culprits this season, averaging 3.4 turnovers (against only 3.7 assists) in under 26 minutes a game, regains full game fitness and the underclassmen playing in new, expanded roles get more comfortable with each other, the turnover problems could ease.

"Definitely, there are a lot of new guys. Even our returning guys are being thrust into new roles -- roles they didn't play last season -- so there's a lot of newness," Collins said. "Even with some of our struggles, we've still been able to win. To learn while you are winning is a good thing. [We do have] to take care of the ball, get rid of some of the carelessness offensively. Our last game was more the way we have played in the past.

"We [also do] need to execute better, be sharper. We're going to have some turnovers, but we want ours to be out of effort and making things happen."

The bigger, more overlooked factors, though, that help explain Duke's apparently pedestrian scoring output -- the Blue Devils are last in the ACC in scoring at 68.2 points per game -- are who the Blue Devils have played and how they have played them.

In its first 10 games, Duke has played three of the 20 slowest teams in the nation: Air Force, Georgetown and George Mason. Add in games against Holy Cross and Columbia, both in the bottom 100 in tempo, and Indiana, which was a sloppy slugfest, and you'll understand how Duke is a shocking 293rd in the country at only 64.3 possessions per game. Last season, the Blue Devils were 40th (71.2).

In other words, Duke is getting seven fewer possessions a game than last season. Given that the Blue Devils' effective field-goal percentage (including the impact of 3s being worth 50 percent more than a 2) is 53.7 percent and they get 38.6 percent of all offensive rebounds, Duke -- even with its high turnover rate -- is losing about six or seven points a game off the scoreboard solely because of the reduced pace of its games.

The slower tempo, though, is not all the fault of Duke's opponents. The Blue Devils -- in part because of their own personnel -- have ended up playing much more traditional half-court team defense and haven't created the ball pressure-fueled run-outs of prior seasons that helped fill both the scoresheet and the possessions charts.

"We've played some teams that have been real-ball control teams and have done a good job [controlling tempo]," Collins said. "But for us, we haven't been able to press and generate more possessions -- it's been more of a possession-by-possession game with the teams we have played this season."

The result, though, has been surprising. Duke has been considerably more staunch defensively than in recent years, allowing only 80.7 points per 100 possessions (No. 5 in the nation) so far, on an effective field-goal percentage of just 40.5 percent (No. 7).

"It is a different team from last year. Shelden was able to erase a lot of mistakes and Sean [Dockery] was our best on-the-ball defender," Paulus said by e-mail. "This season, we are more athletic and the versatility of some of our key players is allowing us to mix things up on defense. We are really just focused on playing together and, defensively, just trying to make plays based on what the offense does."

So for all the Blue Devils' growing pains (and groaning pains from their fans), Duke's defense has led to a scoring efficiency spread so far that is 6.6 points better than last season's (25.7 points per 100 possessions versus 19.1). It's just with fewer possessions in the Blue Devils' games and their penchant for giving away a few extra possessions each time out, the final scores of the games are closer in magnitude (but not necessarily percentage).

Perhaps rightfully so, then, Collins seems optimistic 10 games into the season that these Blue Devils still have a lot of upside.

"We feel like our defense has really carried us this year," Collins said. "We've played great D, we've rebounded the ball well, we're holding teams to a low percentage shooting. If we can maintain this level of defense and improve our offensive efficiency, we think we can be a really good team."

Nugget with the side of context
• He may not be the nation's best shooting guard, but Utah State's Jaycee Carroll definitely is the guard who is shooting the best right now. The 6-foot-2 junior is shooting a searing 62.9 percent from the field (47.1 percent from 3) and 89.5 percent from the line. According to the Aggies' sports information department, Carroll, who also is averaging a WAC-best 22.7 points per game, is the only player in the country currently in the nation's top 35 in scoring, field-goal percentage, 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage. Oregon's Tajuan Porter is the only other player in the top 35 in even three of those categories. The 8-1 Aggies get a good test at BYU on Saturday.

Andy Glockner is the men's college basketball editor at ESPN.com. E-mail him with comments. Some of the data used in this column is from midmajority.com and kenpom.com.

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