Friedlander: Sky's the limit for for peaking Duke Blue Devils
GREENSBORO, NC – Advanced analytics can be an effective tool to help gauge the performance of a team during the course of its season.
But just as they say in the disclaimer on those get-rich-quick infomercials, past performance is no guarantee of future results.
Duke coach Jon Scheyer knows that better than anybody else.
Though the analytics associated with his Blue Devils paint a picture of a team hovering a notch below the nation’s elite, especially as reflected by their No. 24 standing in NCAA’s NET rankings coming into the week, they’re not an entirely accurate representation of what they look like now.
Or what they might look like as March rolls on.
“Analytics and numbers can tell you what you’ve done. (They) can’t tell you what you can do,” the rookie Duke coach said after his 4th-seeded team dismantled No. 5 Pittsburgh 96-69 in its ACC Tournament opener Wednesday.
“I think for our group, you have to look at this season in stages. I don’t think it’s a coincidence how we’re putting it together on both ends (now that) we’ve had the continuity with the lineup, we’ve had the continuity with our health.”
The Blue Devils have been a work in progress since the start of the season.
That’s the product of an almost entirely reconstructed roster learning to play together under a rookie coach also going through his share of on-the-job training and a rash of injuries that showed their progress.
They’ve had more ups and downs than most Duke teams of the past, as reflected in those analytics. But you could tell from those ups that their ceiling is as high as a New York skyscraper.
Based on their recent results, they’re on an express elevator heading straight for the penthouse.
They closed out the regular season on a 7-game winning streak dating back to Valentine’s Day.
And the momentum appears to have carried over into the postseason.
The 4th-seeded Blue Devils (24-8) played their most complete, if not their best game of the season on Wednesday in their ACC Tournament opener against Pittsburgh.
They bolted out to a 12-0 lead behind the shooting of Kyle Filipowski and never looked back in a 92-62 victory that provided a vivid illustration of how they’ve come since their season opener against Jacksonville on Nov. 7.
“We just need to know what the winning recipe is,” Scheyer said. “We’ve learned it and we need to continue to do that.”
It’s a menu that starts on the defensive end, an area that Scheyer has stressed from his first practice as coach Mike Krzyzewski’s successor.
Duke ranks 2nd in the ACC behind Virginia in scoring defense at 64.0 points per game, 2nd behind Clemson in field goal percentage defense at .409 and 1st in the league in rebounding margin at plus-8.1.
It excelled in all of those areas again Wednesday in holding the Panthers right at those averages.
The biggest difference in the Blue Devils, especially since the start of their current rise, has been their improvement on the offensive end. They shot a season-best 65.4% from the floor and set a tournament record with 27 assists in their Wednesday’s blowout win.
Freshman point guard Tyrese Proctor has become a much more dependable perimeter threat as his confidence has grown. He was 3 of 5 from 3-point range while also contributing 10 assists.
Classmate Mark Mitchell has recovered from a midseason slump while big man Derek Lively II continues to add elements to his game after spending most of the season playing catchup from an early injury.
And then there’s Filipowski.
The ACC’s Rookie of the Year has become even more assertive of late. He also made 4 from beyond the arc against Pitt on his way to a game-high 22 points in only 15½ minutes of court time.
“We started four (freshmen) and five of our eight are in the main rotation. I don’t know if anybody else has that in the country,” Scheyer said. “I’ve thrown these guys in the fire. They’ve just battled every step of the way.”
Scheyer praised his young team for understanding where they are in the season, how much they can still accomplish and playing with the urgency of veterans.
Even though they’re mostly still just freshmen.
At least in name.
“This late in the season I don’t really think you can say we’re freshmen anymore,” Mitchell said. “We’ve been through a lot, we’ve been in a lot of big games, a lot of close games and I think it’s shown as the season has gone on. When we get in tight moments and things like that, we’ve learned. We’ve progressed mightily, I think.”
We’ll see just how much on Friday, when Mitchell and his teammates face off against top-seeded Miami in the tournament semifinals.
It was the Hurricanes that taught their Blue Devils 1 of their harshest lessons this season with an 81-59 spanking on Feb. 6, just 48 hours after an emotional rivalry win against North Carolina. The flat performance prompted veteran wing Jacob Grandison to call a players’ only meeting.
It proved to be a turning point. A month later, they’ll have an opportunity to see just how far they’ve come.
And how far they can still go. Perhaps even as far as the Final 4.
Pitt coach Jeff Capel thinks they’ve got that look.
“If they can shoot the basketball like they shot it today, especially from 3, that makes them even more difficult to guard,” said Capel, who played point guard for Duke on its national runnerup team in 1995. “They have an unbelievable defensive presence. They have a lot of weapons. They’re really talented and they’ve gotten a lot better.”
Good enough to get to the Final 4?
The analytics might not think so. But they eye test does.