This year’s Duke team is currently on pace to earn a top-two seed in the NCAA tournament for the 26th time during Coach K’s tenure in Durham. The Blue Devils have won five national titles under the direction of Mike Krzyzewski and this year’s squad is good enough to potentially add a sixth championship.
But how do the 2019-20 Blue Devils compare to their predecessors — and is there one or two teams of old that they closely resemble?
I did the research to find out.
The Blue Devils have an average tempo of 70.9 possessions per game entering Saturday, according to kenpom.com, which is a top-50 pace in the sport.
Among the Duke teams in kenpom.com’s archives, which go back to the 1996-97 season, the Blue Devils team that played at the most similar pace was Duke’s 2003 team, which averaged 70.7 possessions per game and lost in the Sweet 16 as a No. 3 seed. That year’s team had six future NBA players and the Blue Devils were led by Dahntay Jones, a senior, and J.J. Redick, a freshman.
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Duke’s offensive efficiency
The Duke team whose offensive efficiency most closely resembled this year’s team was the 2008-09 Blue Devils, who scored 117.5 points per 100 possessions that season (including the NCAA tournament) and lost in the Sweet 16 as a No. 2 seed. That team featured many of the players who led Duke to the national championship the following season — namely, Kyle Singler, Jon Scheyer and Nolan Smith, but Gerald Henderson, Greg Paulus and Lance Thomas were also on that year’s team.
Those Blue Devils weren’t a particularly great shooting team — 129th in 3-point percentage and 108th in 2-point percentage — but they ranked in the top 30 in turnover percentage (just 17.3%) and offensive rebounding percentage (37%), which allowed them to maximize their possessions.
This year’s Blue Devils are a much better shooting team from 2-point range (54.5%, 19th nationally) but their tempo-free offensive efficiency is roughly the same as the Duke team from 11 years ago.
The following table shows Duke’s adjusted offensive efficiency, meaning how many points the Blue Devils scored per 100 possessions, in the seasons available from kenpom.com’s archives (1997-present) in which Duke earned a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
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By the standards of a college basketball season in which the 3-point line was extended, Duke isn’t a bad 3-point shooting team this season. The Blue Devils are roughly in the top 20 percent of the sport with a 35.4 3-point percentage.
However, that ranks as the third-worst mark for the program since the 1996-97 season.
Once again, the 2008-09 Blue Devils, who shot 34.9 percent from deep, are the closest comparison.
In terms of percentage and quantity of attempts/makes, the 2008-09 team had two good 3-point shooters: Jon Scheyer shot 38.5 percent on 205 attempts and Kyle Singler shot 38.3 percent on 180 attempts. Three other players shot between 33 and 35 percent.
This year’s Duke team has two very good 3-point shooters — Joey Baker is shooting 41.9 percent on 62 attempts and Matthew Hurt is shooting 39.5 percent on 86 attempts — while most of the rest of the team is either shooting between 33 and 36 percent, or a high percentage but on a very low number of attempts.
While Duke’s core has turned over from last season, the defensive efficiency of the 2019-20 Blue Devils is the exact same as the 2018-19 Blue Devils, as of Saturday morning. Both teams allow(ed) 89.3 points per 100 possessions. Last year’s Duke team lost in the Elite Eight as the No. 1 overall seed.
Last season’s team ranked third nationally in block percentage, swatting 16.4 percent of opponents’ 2-point attempts, which is 1.4 percentage points higher than any other Duke team since 1997. This year’s team has done a good job of shot-blocking (14.3%), while also getting back to Duke’s ways of limiting opponents’ 3-point attempts.
This season is on pace to be the 14th year since the 1996-97 campaign that Duke will rank in the top 10 nationally in defensive 3-point attempt percentage, meaning what percentage of opponents’ shot attempts are 3s.
The following table shows Duke’s adjusted defensive efficiency, meaning how many points the Blue Devils allowed per 100 possessions, in the seasons available from kenpom.com’s archives (1997-present) in which Duke earned a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.
Usage rate, size of players’ roles on offense
This year’s Duke team centers around All-America candidate Vernon Carey Jr. in the post, who has a team-high 30.9 percent usage rate that ranks 40th nationally, as of Saturday. Usage rate tracks the percent of possessions that end with a specific player making a shot, missing a shot that’s rebounded by the defense or turning the ball over when he’s on the floor.
Sophomore point guard Tre Jones ranks second in usage at 24.1 percent.
What other Duke teams were based around a center, then a point guard, on offense?
When Duke won the national title in 2015, then-freshman center Jahlil Okafor was a high-usage player and while point guard Tyus Jones, Tre’s older brother, was an efficient scorer, he technically ranked fifth on the team in usage rate.
Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett had extremely high usage rates last season and both could be ball-dominant players, especially Barrett, but neither was a point guard.
The usage rates available on kenpom.com date back to the 2001-02 season, and while there isn’t a perfect comparison in terms of a center-heavy offense with a fairly high-usage point guard, you could make the case that Duke’s 2012-13 and 2001-02 teams are the closest matches.
In 2013, Mason Plumlee, who was a much better college player than you might realize, had a team-high 25.2 percent usage rate. Point guard Quinn Cook ranked third on the team with a 21.2 percent usage rate. Plumlee made roughly 60 percent of his 2s and Cook assisted on 29 percent of Duke’s made field goals when he was on the floor.
Duke lost in the Elite Eight as a No. 2 seed that year.
This season, Carey is shooting roughly 60 percent inside the arc, while Jones is assisting on 32.5 percent of Duke’s made shots when he’s playing.
The other potential comparison from the kenpom.com era is the 2001-02 Blue Devils, who admittedly were as talented as just about any point guard-big man combo Duke has seen. That’s because Duke had Jay Williams running the point with Carlos Boozer down low. Williams had a 29.3 percent usage rate, while Boozer was second on the team with a 23.7 percent usage rate. That Duke team lost in the Sweet 16 as a No. 1 seed.
So, where does at that leave us?
This year’s Duke is a hybrid of the offensive efficiency and 3-point shooting of the 2008-09 Blue Devils, the defense of their 2018-19 team, the pace of Duke’s 2002-03 team and the point guard-center-centric offense of the 2001-02 and 2012-13 Blue Devils.