In the buildup to Midnight Madness, ESPN Insider and our college hoops team are collaborating on a preview of one high-profile college hoops team per day -- based on Joe Lunardi’s top 20 teams in his offseason Bracketology. We're calling it "Countdown To Madness." I'll be tracing three key things you should know about each team we preview. We're calling that Three Big Things. (Hey, that's snappy!) Today: Duke.
1. For roughly 98 percent of the nation’s college basketball programs, Duke’s 2012 season would be considered a general success. The Blue Devils prevailed in a stacked Maui Invitational field, finished 27–7 overall and 13–3 in the ACC, ranked among the nation’s top 20 teams in adjusted efficiency, and defeated a strongly favored North Carolina team in Chapel Hill thanks to one of the greatest comebacks/finishes -- and one of the greatest games -- in the history of the storied hatefest that is the Duke-UNC rivalry. And for good measure, it landed yet another player, guard Austin Rivers, in the NBA draft lottery. Not a bad year, all things considered.
But by Duke’s lofty standards -- grading on Coach K’s typically steep curve -- the 2011–12 campaign was a B-minus at best.
Offense was never the problem. The Blue Devils finished the season ranked No. 11 in Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings. They were a solid shooting team that spaced the floor, worked from the perimeter, rebounded the ball well and got to the free throw line at the 13th-highest rate in the country.
No, the problem was defense -- a defense that was, by Duke’s standards, downright bad.
2. The Blue Devils finished the year ranked No. 70 in adjusted defensive efficiency. Again: In a vacuum, that’s not all that bad. It’s better than about 270 other Division I basketball teams, after all. But here’s a quick look at where Duke finished in adjusted defensive efficiency every year since 2003:
2011: No. 8
2010: No. 4
2009: No. 20
2008: No. 9
2007: No. 5
2006: No. 13
2005: No. 1
2004: No. 4
2003: No. 15
Every year in the past decade, the Blue Devils have been one of the best 20 defensive teams in the country. More often than not, they’re among the best 10. Simply put, Coach K defenses don’t perform like the one we saw in 2011-12. It never happens. But it did last year.
The primary reason for the defensive deficiency was the defensive perimeter. The Blue Devils were poor at pressuring opposing guards; they ranked No. 251 in opponent turnover rate (which isn’t an exact measure of perimeter defense, but it’s pretty close) and No. 213 in steal rate. They weren’t much better at protecting the boards, either, ranking No. 165 in defensive rebounding rate. But the defensive perimeter was the primary problem, and the reason the Blue Devils, despite all their strengths on the offensive end, were left vulnerable to the fate that befell them in the first round of the NCAA tournament -- when C.J. McCollum and No. 15-seeded Lehigh shocked the world and upset the No. 2-seeded Dukies.
3. With the exception of Rivers, Miles Plumlee and Andre Dawkins, who will take a somewhat surprising redshirt season, Duke is bringing essentially the same team as in 2012. Seth Curry will be a sharpshooter from deep and a capable ballhandler on the wing, while Quinn Cook should emerge in his sophomore year as a more seasoned and convincing presence. Junior guard Tyler Thornton is still around, and will still have a role off the bench to play. Ryan Kelly will still spread the floor. Forwards Josh Hairston and the youngest Brother Plumlee, Marshall, could emerge to play next to Mason Plumlee along the front line.
For all his natural abilities and his high professional ceiling, Rivers’ departure doesn’t feel like one that should set this team back a ton. And Miles Plumlee, while solid and physical in the paint, was never a particularly large part of Duke’s offensive attack.
And there is some help on the way. Both members of Duke’s two-player recruiting class should be immediate impact players. Rasheed Sulaimon is the No. 3-ranked shooting guard in the class. Amile Jefferson is the No. 4-ranked power forward. Scouts say Sulaimon is a natural scorer, and has the physical ability to develop into a lockdown defender on the perimeter. They point to Jefferson’s length and versatility; potentially, he could be the kind of athletic forward Duke hasn’t had in years, even in seasons when it guarded well.
The main focus for the newcomers, and for Duke’s coaching staff, will be repairing the relatively shoddy defense the Blue Devils played in 2011-12. Sulaimon could make an impact here right away, but freshmen are always unpredictable. No, this restoration will require a total team effort.
That’s a coaching buzz phrase, but one that is nonetheless applicable here. The offense will be there. Bank on it. Now everyone on this team, from the perimeter in, has to get better on the defensive wing and on the defensive glass.
If the Blue Devils want to live up to their typically high expectations -- which means competing for a national title, and nothing less -- then that’s the key. It really is that simple.