Duke loss shows how quickly tournament performance can shift perceptions

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The NCAA Tournament is great at distorting reality.

While it’s the greatest playoff system in all of American sports, you must at least concede that the best team does not always cut down the nets.

To cap off a wild early-evening slate of games, Duke suffered what some may call the most embarrassing and unexpected loss in the history of the Coach K’s tenure in Durham.

A country rejoiced as C.J McCulloum led Lehigh through to the next round,  pulling off an improbable win that embodies what makes this tournament so unique.

But with the loss, one question must be raised:

How different, really, was this Duke team from many of their recent squads? More specifically, was this team really any less talented than the 2010 NCAA Championship winning Blue Devils team?

On the surface, the obvious answer is that, yes, the 2010 Blue Devils were a far better team.

They won the National Championship, so this should be a no brainer!

Yes, I understand that, but depending on how you interpret “better” and “team” in this context is important, so let’s  run some numbers on the two clubs so we can maybe get some good perspective here.

In 2010 the Blue Devils entered the post-season at 26-5 overall, 13-3 in the ACC.

The 2012 Blue Devils? They were 26-6, and also 13-3 in conference play.

Additionally, both teams went 7-4 in the regular season against the RPI top 50.

Basically, these teams had accomplished virtually the same. They had roughly the same number of good wins and bad losses, and everyone in the world hated them equally.

The similarities continue in some statistical areas as well.

This year’s Blue Devils team actually shot the ball better from the floor, with an 53 eFG percentage, a  few points better than in 2010 when they shot 50.5 percent.

Why?

While the 2010 team shot a bit better from the three-point line, you’d be surprised to know that this year’s team actually was better from inside the arc, with a 51 2pt percentage, compared to 47 percent in 2010. You can thank Austin Rivers’ dribble penetration for that.

Overall, the Blue Devils 2010 team were the game’s best in adjusted-offensive efficiency (123.5), which was a KenPom.com stat Duke apologists desperately held on to in March, arguing that their team was worthy of a number one seed based primarily on this figure.

Good for eighth best this season, the 2012 Blue Devils had an AdjO rating of 117, which actually ranks higher than top seeds Syracuse and North Carolina.

Defensively, things start to break up a bit, but not to the point where you could confidently say that this year’s Duke team should be placed on upset alert against a 15-seed. 2012 Duke allowed exactly one point-per-possession on 43.3 FG percentage, while 2010 Duke just 0.92 on 40 percent. Both teams were average and nearly identical in defensive rebounding.

Even without the numbers, I’m sure you’ve gathered that the difference between the 2010 Duke Blue Devils and 2012 Duke Blue Devils is rather negligible, or about 50 percent C.J McCollum and 50 percent the fate of a number of other championship contending teams.

Remember that in 2010 the Blue Devils peeved a number of people by grabbing the fourth number one seed. Nobody believed they were deserving,  but then Kansas got Ali Farokhmanesh’ed by Northern Iowa, Butler came out of the West, and West Virginia upset Kentucky in the Elite Eight.

Suddenly, the Blue Devils were the only one-seed in the Final Four, and it became their tournament to lose. They didn’t really have a star (although Kyle Singler assumed that role as best he could), played with a point-guard by committee (remember Jon Scheyer), and relied on a 7-0 Brian Zoubek to anchor the middle (a career four-point, five-rebound guy).

If anything, this year’s Duke Blue Devils team had more weapons, and were built at least get out of the first weekend. Guard oriented with a freshman that could create his own shot if the rest of the team was struggling, Rivers, in theory, could single-handedly save his team offensively when needed.

Last night Rivers tied for a team high 19-points. He shot only 5-14 from the floor, but it’s this type of player the Blue Devils did not have in 2010. They were far more reliant on offensive execution – a sustainable plan to win a National Championship, but oddly what can leave you susceptible to an early round exit if shots simply are not falling or match-ups do not work in your favor.

If Duke were to get past Lehigh, a trip to the South Regional final was perfectly within reach. Assuming they would meet Kentucky, it’s likely the run would end in Atlanta for this team, but even then we’d be talking about how respectable the Blue Devils season was, one that ended in only their second trip to the Elite Eight in seven years.

The tournament can be cruel and terrible for historical perspective, but these are the breaks in a field of 68.

Follow Nick Fasulo on Twitter @billyedelinSBN