Blogger Spotlight: Duke’s defense, potential and the Devil nobody hates

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Once again, Duke’s doing its thing in college hoops. The Devils are a Top 10 mainstay, feature an offense that can stroke the 3 and a post players who focus on rebounding and ensuring those perimeter shooters get their shots.

And in case you missed it, they’re also atop the ACC standings, tied with Florida State.

So what await coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team the rest of the season. I asked Adam Rowe, the founder and editor at Duke Hoop Blog for analysis of the season thus far and insight to what’s ahead.

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Q: Does this feel like a Top 10 team? The Devils are 18-3, but sure seem to catch a lot of grief, even before the home loss to FSU. (Coulda been worse, though. Coulda been on the road by 33.) Heck, even Coach K wasn’t overly pleased after Saturday’s win against St. John’s. This is just part of Duke basketball, right?

A: Based on their body of work, the 2012 version of the Duke Blue Devils absolutely feels like a Top 10 team. After losing seniors Nolan Smith and Kyle Singler, along with No. 1 overall NBA draft pick Kyrie Irving, this team had serious scoring, assisting, and most importantly leadership voids entering November.

The trips to China and Dubai in August certainly helped mold the team’s chemistry and allowed Austin Rivers and Michael Gbinije to assimilate into post-high school basketball more quickly, but this was still a team searching for an identity heading into their Nov. 11 game against Belmont at home. Since that one-point win, the team played a ridiculous non-conference schedule (tops according to kenpom.com, RPI) beating teams currently ranked five, 11, and 21, all at neutral sites. They also got a win over 19th-ranked Virginia in their second ACC game. I don’t see any other teams in the polls with that kind of record. Sure, they tripped up against Florida State, but the Devils didn’t look bad doing it.

As far as getting grief, we are talking about Duke here. There is no in between with this team. You either think Mike Krzyzewski is the devil incarnate or that Christian Laettner’s shot against Kentucky was guided by supernatural beings.

Q: What’s behind the defensive issues? Can they be fixed?

A: Duke has never finished below 20th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive rankings (I’m a big tempo-free guy if you haven’t noticed) yet this year they sit at 84. I think there are a number of reasons that can be extrapolated for this team’s propensity to give up points, but no magic bullet.

We can go back to the strength of schedule that Duke has played and point to that as a reason. We’ll stick with kenpom.com here for a standard, and see that Duke’s opponents boast college basketball’s third-toughest offenses. This is even including Virginia, who sits at 95. Well, Alabama is the only other team to have faced a Top 5 offensive schedule to be ranked in the KenPom Top 40.

Moving beyond their opponents and concentrating on Duke, there is clearly something missing on the defensive side of the ball. Much has been made of Duke’s perimeter defense and it certainly was an issue heading into the season. We are actually taking part in the Project Defensive Scoresheet Project initiated by Luke Winn and David Hess. Hopefully, through analyzing Duke’s defense by a number of metrics, we will be able to show a much clearer picture of what/who is causing the drop in Duke’s defense. You can see the first installment here, with the Western Michigan game.

Q: Even if the defense does have issues, the offense is as good as any in recent seasons. Andre Dawkins is a stone-cold killer, Austin Rivers has his sick crossover, Seth Curry’s due for a huge day and the Plumlees are the kings of second-chance points and alley-oops. But does it seem like Ryan Kelly should get more looks? Or is he getting the right amount of shots for his game? 

A: Ryan tends to play somewhat of a quiet game, so you may not notice the shots that Ryan is able to get. He’s tied for third on the team with Mason Plumlee and Andre Dawkins at 149 shots on the season. If you look at these charts from Statsheet.com (deselect the previous two years to see just this year’s) you can see that Ryan is getting 21.3 percent of Duke’s shots while participating in 21.9 percent of the possessions.

If anything, Duke should look to get Ryan more open behind the 3-point line as he is the most accurate shooter there by a wide margin at 47.2 percent. For one reason or another, he has only taken 53 three-pointers compared to 110 for Andre Dawkins, 87 for Seth Curry, and 73 for Austin Rivers.

Q: Rate Rivers’ season. Few freshmen came in with more hype. How’s he done?

source: APA: Austin started off the year outstanding, and even most of the his harshest critics (I’m looking at you, Sebastian Pruiti) can admit that. While his offensive production has fallen off as defenses have become more keyed on him, he is still a net positive player for Duke. His +/- of +200 points while he’s on the court makes him worth 10.5 positive points for his team. (His full game log is here.)

Coach K decided to bench Rivers for the start of the Wake Forest game on Jan. 19 but that game he dropped 20 points on 32 minutes. He has played 38 minutes in the two games afterwards and scored 19 and 10, respectively. Like any freshman, he’s going through growing pains but with his immense talent and ability and the foundation of a lifetime around the game of basketball, I expect him to be playing his best basketball in the spring.

Q: Is Tyler Thornton underrated as a point guard? Seems to me that the guys they’ve tried – Curry, Rivers – and hope blossom as a PG – Quinn Cook – have been inconsistent. Meanwhile, Thornton’s kinda like Jon Scheyer, only with a defensive emphasis. Duke doesn’t really miss a beat with Thornton in there, but the general consensus is that things could be better.

A: I think it’s easy to say that Tyler Thornton is underrated in everything he does as he’s not really rated by anyone, ever. He knew his role at Duke was to come in and be a four-year player. The fact that he’s contributing offensively as early as he is can be attributed to an extremely high level of character and work ethic. He is generally a steadying hand as the lead guard, doesn’t take a whole lot of risks, and can knock down an outside shot every once in a while.

As a point guard, Tyler is not going to lead a fast break or cut through a defense to drive, draw, and dish but he does give the team calm. A lot of people talk about Tyler’s defensive prowess, but his strength there lies in his help defense and ability to jump passing lanes. He, like all of Duke guards, have a tendency to get beat by their men on the perimeter.

Q: Well then, I’ll be sure to stop talking about Thornton on defense (musta been a default phrase). Is anyone on Duke worth much on defense? Say I need someone to check Harrison Barnes. Who’s it gonna be?

A: A lot of people talk about Tyler as a defensive stopper. I’m not exactly sure where that observation came from (although he does have Duke’s best stop% at 55.3 percent.) It probably comes from the fact the he is an in-your-face type player and is relentless. As I said earlier, he is a really good off the ball defender, but I wouldn’t call him a stopper, per se.

Duke’s defense has been an issue all year, but the guards have been shown to get blown by quite regularly. Whether that’s a function of an overplay style or lack of lateral quickness or mental lapses is a matter of debate, but it is definitely an issue compared to other years.

Barnes is one of those guys who will give Duke matchup problems as there is nobody on the team with his physical attributes. Josh Hairston did show an ability to stop Draymond Green when Duke played Michigan State, but Barnes has much more ability as a shooter than Green. It will be interesting to see who picks him up. Andre Dawkins played him pretty tight in the ACC Tournament last year. Maybe he can replicate that success.

Q: I was among those who wrote about the declining attendance among the Cameron Crazies. It’s not something that’s specific to Duke, but – like most everything else related to Duke hoops – you guys probably take more hits on this because of the Crazies’ rep and because it’s Duke. Is there anything regarding Duke you do think gets a fair shake?

A: There are certain writers that give Duke a fair shake, but for the most part they use Duke to get more page views, which is what we are all in this business for. As I said above, Duke is the most polarizing team in college basketball (maybe college sports). There’s a reason the game against Butler was the highest rated of the 20 years prior. I think you, Jeff Eisenberg, Luke Winn and a few others give Duke a fair look but there are certainly some who don’t.

Q: Twitter segue: How often do people pick fights with you in that medium? And vice versa?

A: I get trash talked quite a bit, especially after Duke loses. At first I responded, but I know now that people use the cloak of anonymity for role play. I’ll either ignore it now or simply block the person. I do talk trash, but only if it’s people I interact with on a regular basis.

Q: Everyone loves to hate Duke players. Is there a guy who non-Duke fans love? Grant Hill comes to mind.

source: APA: Grant Hill is a guy nobody can hate but Nolan Smith is the one that immediately pops into my mind.

Some friends and I ran a marketing campaign to get Nolan the National Player of the Year Award last year, and even UNC fans were commenting about how much they liked him and wanted to see him succeed. I think for Nolan, putting himself out there like he did in the “Lessons From My Father” article really humanized him to a point where people could actually see him as a person and not just as a basketball player. That, and his outgoing personality really endeared him to a lot of Duke fans, but also non-Duke fans as well. I hope that he can continue to stay in the spotlight as he has a lot of good to show the world off the court.

Q: How’s the response been to Duke Hoop Blog? Is there a day in the future when that’s your only job?

A: I feel like I’ve been blessed to have a really good response from the site. I started it one night when my wife went out on her bachelorette weekend and I was sitting around the house with nothing to do. It was more of a hobby than anything. I wrote a few articles that got some recognition, started tweeting (there really wasn’t a Duke fan presence on Twitter at the time I started but there definitely is now), and now I have four writers who contribute to the site and am getting around 30,000 hits per day. I’m lucky for those guys (follow them on twitter @thedevilwolf, @ClykinsBlog, @R_Horn21, @Bleed_DukeBlue1) because I have a full time job, I’m married, have a social life, and am taking 12 hours of classes to change careers. Without their contributions, this site would not be alive today.

There was a week or two in the offseason when I considered shutting it down just because I knew the time suck would be so large. @thedevilwolf in particular is a huge reason why I kept going.

As far as this being my only job, I don’t think that’s feasible unless I went to a pay model and that is not something I’m interested in. This is a labor of love for me, and something I do because I am passionate about Duke Athletics. This site is a way I feel like I can give back for all the great memories and emotions that Duke has given me ever since I first stepped foot in Cameron as a young boy.

You can read more of Adam’s writing at Duke Hoop Blog and follow him on Twitter @DukeHoopBlog.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Three Things to Know: Big Ten dominates, DePaul stays perfect, Georgetown wins

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It turned out to be a pretty wild night of basketball Wednesday. Purdue absolutely stomped Virginia. Villanova had trouble with Penn. Ohio State thumped North Carolina.

There is more where that came from, though, so here’s what else you need to know from a busy night of hoops around the country.

1. The Big Ten dominated the ACC in the challenge’s final night

As noted above, the Big Ten not only took care of business in the two highest-profile games of the third and final night of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, but absolutely walloped their opponents. Truly, Purdue and Ohio State embarrassed Virginia and North Carolina.

That wasn’t the limits of the Big Ten’s success, however.

Third-ranked Maryland decimated Notre Dame (72-51) and Penn State smacked Wake Forest (76-54). Georgia Tech did beat Nebraska (73-56), and NC State outlasted Wisconsin (69-54), in the lower-tier games.

What we learned Wednesday was that the Big Ten’s strength at the top of the conference is legit, which may have been somewhat in question – at least in the immediate, attention-span deficient times we live in – after Michigan and Michigan State took losses to Louisville and Duke, respectively, last night.

The headliners, though, are what count Wednesday. What Purdue and Ohio State did sends the message that the Big Ten looks to have a real claim on being the country’s toughest conference.

2. DePaul trending up, Texas Tech not so much

Given just how bad DePaul has been in recent years – they avoided finishing out of the Big East cellar just twice in 10 years – it’s been fair to wonder how real this undefeated start to the season has been.

By beating Texas Tech, 65-60 in overtime, the Blue Demons made some progress in quieting doubts about the potential of this being a tournament team.

Dave Leitao’s team now has three wins against top-75 KenPom teams, with two (Minnesota and Iowa) coming on the road. They also knocked off Boston College on the road. Hey, the Eagles are still an ACC team.

Their statistical profile still isn’t great – they don’t shoot it all that well, they don’t take a lot of 3s and they aren’t strong on the boards – but they’re winning. All they’re doing is winning, actually.

It’s certainly a team with a lot of improved talent, and at some point, talent and track record have to take over from a history of losing.

That time appears to be quickly approaching.

As for Texas Tech, Chris Beard’s preseason top-10 team has now lost three straight to a trio of teams – Iowa, Creighton and DePaul – that aren’t expected to compete for conference titles, even if they ultimately prove themselves solid, tournament-level teams.

It probably shouldn’t be surprising to see the Red Raiders struggle given the amount of turnover from last year’s national runners-up, but unless they figure out a way to beat top-ranked Louisville on a neutral floor Tuesday, they’re going to enter conference play with the best win on their resume being Eastern Illinois (KenPom: 245). That’s not a great place to be.

3. Georgetown wins at Oklahoma State

This is a hard one to get a handle on.

On one hand, the Hoyas got a nice road win against a solid Oklahoma State team after losing two major contributors earlier this week.

On the other hand, Georgetown had two players on the floor against the Cowboys who are facing serious accusations of wrongdoing. Georgetown coach Patrick Ewing released a statement saying no player gets “special treatment,” but it still seems strange to see the Hoyas allow players under an unsettled cloud of accusations to take the floor.

A road win against a Big 12 opponent, even if the Cowboys were down a starter, is going to help the Hoyas build a resume that’s going to be much harder to compile without James Akinjo – whose departure is separate from any legal issues his former teammates are having – and Josh LeBlanc, but the way this is being handled makes that seem beside the point.

No. 6 Ohio State hands No. 7 UNC worst home loss in 17 years

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Duane Washington scored 14 points, E.J. Liddell added 12 points off the bench and Ohio State held Cole Anthony to 4-for-15 shooting as the No. 6 Buckeyes went into the Dean Dome and treated No. 7 North Carolina like they were the Michigan football team.

The final score was 74-49. It’s North Carolina’s worst loss since losing by 26 points at Miami in 2013. It’s their worst home loss since the Matt Doherty era, when then-No. 1 Duke won by 29 points in the Dean Dome in 2002.

That isn’t pretty.

Here are the three things to take away from this performance:

1. NORTH CAROLINA DOES NOT HAVE ENOUGH HELP FOR COLE ANTHONY

Cole Anthony is a stud. He’s one of the most entertaining scorers in all of college basketball, and he is going to spend the majority of this season putting up absolutely monstrous numbers.

The problem is that he is going to have to put up those numbers if the Tar Heels are going to have a chance to win at anywhere near the level they expect, because there is a real dearth of scoring firepower on the roster around him.

You want proof?

The Tar Heels have yet to break 80 points in a single game this season. That’s not the norm for Roy Williams’ teams.

Now, to be clear, North Carolina played the majority of this game without Armando Bacot – we’ll get to that – and he is the second-best scoring option on this roster. So that certainly played a role in UNC’s struggles, as did the fact that Ohio State is the second-best defensive team in the country, according to KenPom.

But there are going to be plenty of games this season where the Tar Heels have to square off with teams that are really good defensively. And this game was played in the Dean Dome. UNC cannot blame a 27.4 percent shooting performance entirely on their opponent.

The truth is this simple: The Tar Heels have a bunch of pieces on their roster that should thrive in a role. Brandon Robinson is a good defender, a good passer and a guy that can make open jumpers. Garrison Brooks can get to the offensive glass and bang in the paint defensively. Leaky Black has the kind of length and versatility everyone is looking for.

But none of them have played well enough to be the third-option offensively for a team with ACC title and Final Four aspirations. The grad transfers, Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce, are nothing more than bench options, and rightfully so.

That means the Tar Heels are in a tough spot.

2. ARMANDO BACOT’S ANKLE INJURY SOUNDS BAD

I just spent 400 words explaining to you why North Carolina needs secondary scoring options alongside Cole Anthony.

Their best secondary scorer is Armando Bacot. He sprained his left ankle in the first five minutes of Wednesday night’s game. Roy Williams told reporters after the game that “he may be out awhile.”

North Carolina plays at Virginia on Sunday. They play at Gonzaga Dec. 18th. Uh oh.

3. THIS WAS AN OHIO STATE-MENT

First and foremost, yes.

I said that.

It wasn’t an editor.

It was me.

And it was good.

Second of all, this isn’t exactly breaking news, but this Ohio State team is awesome. As of this very moment, they rank second overall on KenPom, behind only Louisville. They are the nation’s second-best defense, and they are allowing just 0.781 points-per-possession on the season. (That’s really good.)

We all thought we knew this already. The Buckeyes beat Cincinnati at home. They blew out Villanova at home. But Cincinnati has been terrible since then, Villanova was playing their first road game of the season with a really young team and we had yet to see the Buckeyes play away from home. Like Louisville on Tuesday night, this was a chance for Ohio State to make themselves known on a national stage with everyone watching.

They did.

But here’s why this win was so impressive to me: It’s the second-worst loss that North Carolina has experienced at home in the last 56 years, and it came on a night where Luther Muhammad played just nine minutes and Kaleb Wesson finished with just 10 points, nine boards and six turnovers.

The Buckeyes can win when their best players don’t play well, because A) They’re deep and balanced, B) They are a team built on their defense and C) They are as well-coached as anyone in the country.

The Big Ten is absolutely loaded at the top this year.

And Ohio State may be the best of the bunch.

Which means they may be the best team in the country.

Who saw that coming?

Corey Kispert leads No. 9 Gonzaga over Texas Southern 101-62

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SPOKANE, Wash. — Corey Kispert scored 17 points, Joel Ayayi added 16 and No. 9 Gonzaga beat Texas Southern 101-62 on Wednesday night, rebounding from a loss to Michigan in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game.

Seven players scored in double figures for Gonzaga (9-1). The Zags have 28 consecutive home wins, second-longest streak in the nation after Tennessee’s 30.

Tyrik Armstrong scored 15 points for Texas Southern (2-6), which is playing a difficult nonconference schedule. Yahuza Ross added nine.

Gonzaga made 12 of its first 15 shots to jump to a 25-15 lead.

Texas Southern scored three straight baskets to get to 25-21.

But Gonzaga replied with a 28-9 run to push its lead to 53-30 at halftime.

Gonzaga shot 61% in the first half, while the Tigers shot just 37.8% and made just one of 11 from 3-point range.

Gonzaga scored the first nine points of the second half for a 62-30 lead.

Kispert’s 3-pointer gave Gonzaga an 82-46 lead with just under eight minutes left in the game.

BIG PICTURE

Texas Southern: The Tigers were picked to finish second in the Southwestern Athletic Conference. Their defense came in yielding 79.9 points per game. They have lost to Gonzaga each of the previous two years.

Gonzaga: The Bulldogs have five players banged up, and were seeking to rebound from an 82-64 loss to Michigan last Friday that was their most lopsided since 2014. They are 14-0 all-time against SWAC teams.

UP NEXT

Texas Southern hosts Concordia on Saturday.

Gonzaga plays at No. 22 Washington on Sunday, followed by a game at No. 12 Arizona on Dec. 14 before returning home to face No. 7 North Carolina on Dec. 18.

No. 21 Tennessee tops Florida A&M for 31st-straight home win

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — John Fulkerson scored 15 points to lead five Tennessee players in double figures as the 21st-ranked Volunteers trounced winless Florida A&M 72-43 on Wednesday night for their 31st consecutive home victory.

Tennessee (7-1) owns the longest active home winning streak of any Division I team. The Vols haven’t lost at home since falling 94-84 to Auburn on Jan. 2, 2018.

The Vols’ latest victory improved Rick Barnes’ coaching record to 699-365 in 32 seasons at George Mason (1987-88), Providence (1988-94), Clemson (1994-98), Texas (1998-2015) and Tennessee (2015-present).

Barnes will try to become the seventh active head coach to earn 700 career Division I wins when Tennessee hosts No. 15 Memphis on Dec. 14. The fraternity includes Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim, North Carolina’s Roy Williams, West Virginia’s Bob Huggins, Coastal Carolina’s Cliff Ellis and Kentucky’s John Calipari.

Fulkerson’s 15-point performance came four days after the junior forward scored a career-high 17 in a 72-69 victory over VCU, which was ranked No. 20 at the time.

Yves Pons scored 14 points and Olivier Nkamhoua had 11 for Tennessee. Lamonte’ Turner and Josiah-Jordan James added 10 points apiece.

Evins Desir scored 11 points for Florida A&M (0-7).

Tennessee took control with an early 14-0 run that opened a 16-3 advantage. The Vols stayed in front by double digits the rest of the way.

Florida A&M shot just 35.6% (16 of 45) from the floor. Tennessee hasn’t allowed any of its first eight opponents to shoot better than 41.1%.

BIG PICTURE

Florida A&M: This game continued the early-season travels for Florida A&M, a Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference program that won’t play its first home game until it hosts Morgan State on Jan. 11. The Rattlers are opening their season with 11 road games and two neutral-site contests.

Tennessee: The Vols won easily despite not getting much scoring from Jordan Bowden, who entered with a team-high 15.4 points per game. Bowden scored just three and shot 1 of 7. Tennessee will need to play better to beat Memphis after the exam break. Tennessee had an equal number of turnovers and baskets (10) in the second half.

UP NEXT

Florida A&M is at Portland on Dec. 16.

Tennessee hosts Memphis on Dec. 14.

Jalen Smith’s double-double helps Maryland rout Notre Dame

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COLLEGE PARK, Md.  — Jalen Smith had 15 points and a career-high 16 rebounds as No. 3 Maryland cruised to a 72-51 victory over Notre Dame on Wednesday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Eric Ayala scored 14 points and Aaron Wiggins added 11 for the Terrapins (9-0), who are off to their best start since winning 10 in a row to open the 1998-99 season.

John Mooney had 17 points and 12 rebounds for Notre Dame (6-2), which had won six in a row since opening the season with a loss at North Carolina.

It took some time for the Terps’ offense to get going, but their defense was sharp for nearly the entire first half. After falling behind 9-4, Maryland allowed just four points over the next 12:31.

Ayala scored seven points in a row to turn a one-point game into a 21-13 lead, and later delivered a tomahawk slam a minute before the break. Aaron Wiggins capped the half by getting the carom from his missed 3-pointer and slamming it home for a 32-20 lead.

Notre Dame never cut the deficit to less than 10 in the second half as Maryland snapped a six-game skid in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, a streak that began when the Terps were still in the ACC.

Smith recorded his fifth double-double of the season, matching his total from all of last season.

BIG PICTURE

Notre Dame: The Irish missed out on the first of their three chances for a noteworthy nonconference victory this month. Notre Dame will get chances at home against UCLA (Dec. 14) and in Indianapolis against Indiana (Dec. 21) for a brand-name triumph outside the ACC.

Maryland: The evidence continues to build that the Terps are an elite defensive team. Three days after holding Marquette star Markus Howard to just six points, Maryland smothered the Fighting Irish, limiting them to 29.0 percent from the floor.

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Maryland, which rose to No. 3 in this week’s poll after winning the Orlando Invitational, did nothing to dent its lofty ranking in the first of two games this week.

UP NEXT

Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish begin a three-game homestand Saturday, facing Boston College in their first ACC game in more than a month.

Maryland: The Terps open conference play on Saturday at home against Illinois, the first of two league games in a span of four days.