Let us all welcome our new Duke overlords


(AP/AJ Mast)

In the wake of Duke’s 118-84 demolition of Kentucky on a neutral floor in Indianapolis, it’s clear that this paragraph from my previous post aged far better than, well, my previous post:

Duke may very well beat Kentucky at the Champions Classic this week, and, if you didn’t think so before, consider the fact that no fewer than 28 out of 30 writers surveyed (including yours truly) think the Blue Devils are going to lose. That kind of consensus fairly begs to be wrong.

I for one will never look at Zion Williamson or RJ Barrett (or, for that matter, the newly feisty and assured Jack White) quite the same way as I did before Election Night 2018.

This was a Champions Classic wipeout on the same magnitude as Kentucky’s 72-40 pummeling of Kansas four years ago. That Wildcat team then went undefeated all the way to the Final Four, and, until further notice, you will hear that kind of expectation voiced with regard to this 2018-19 Duke team.

Too soon, you say? Fine, go fight hoops city hall. These expectations were already being voiced on social media during the second half last night. It’s what happens when you beat the No. 2 team in the country by 34 points.

So let’s consider two questions. What really did happen, exactly, and what now?

Duke scored 118 points (it was Kentucky’s worst defensive performance in at least 17 years) thanks to shot volume, pace, and accuracy from the field, in that order.

The shot volume was far and away the most extreme factor in the mix, and indeed there’s an excellent chance we just saw the Blue Devils’ best performance of the 2018-19 season on that front (at least when it comes to games against major-conference opponents). Take it from a man who knows….

Well said, Coach. Duke committed a turnover on just five percent of its possessions, and a good rule of thumb is that, when you can spell the figure for turnover percentage instead of using a numeral, Bo Ryan is saluting you from wherever he’s at these days.

Add to that a healthy offensive rebound rate (33 percent, thanks in large part to six offensive boards from White), and you get a shot volume of 112.9. The highest such number I’ve ever seen over an entire major-conference season, conversely, was the 104.2 that Syracuse recorded in 2014. In other words, Duke reached the performance horizon in terms of shot volume last night. It’s quite possible they won’t return there against a quality opponent for the duration of the season.

If you want to score 118 points, it also helps to play an 82-possession game. Still, the pace was extreme but not necessarily extraordinary. If UK’s Reid Travis thought last night’s tempo felt a bit familiar, for example, it was no mistake. Last February when he was still with Stanford, he played in an 85-possession 40-minute game in Palo Alto against Washington, the fastest-paced contest in major-conference ball last year.

The fact that Mike Krzyzewski’s men put up 1.43 points per trip in a really fast-paced game resulted in the NBA-like number we saw last night. That per-possession number represented Duke’s best such effort against a major-conference opponent since the Blue Devils recorded 1.54 points per trip at home against Georgia Tech in January of 2017.

Lastly, Duke made 55 percent of its twos and 45 percent of its threes. That’s excellent, and, obviously, if Williamson continues to record 11-of-13 outings, opponents are going to have their hands full with a big three consisting of Zion, Barrett, and Cam Reddish. That being said, it’s likely we’ll see the Blue Devils shoot even more accurately than they did last night three or four times during ACC play in 2019.

So one shell-shocked conclusion on the first morning of our brave new Zion-dominant world would go like this…

  1. Duke’s ceiling is way, way higher than we thought 24 hours ago;
  2. Coach K’s team will find it difficult to repeat all of the above simultaneously against quality opponents, as mean-regression acts like the pushy no-fun buzzkill that it intrinsically is.

These are two wholly harmonious and noncontradictory working assumptions. They will guide the sovereign expectations for Duke around these parts until further notice.

Bonus historical note. Maybe great shooting really is an event, and great offense really is an outcome. Last night’s contest wasn’t a conference game, of course, but such contests do supply a handy benchmark for judging what happens when two high-level opponents face off against each other.

In my stack of 8346 major-conference games played since 2006, teams have scored 1.45 points per trip or better just 47 times, about four times per season. So, yes, it’s crazy we saw Duke come that close to such an outlandish number, even crazier that the Blue Devils did so in an 83-possession contest, and craziest of all that it occurred against Kentucky.

For the record, the accuracy equivalent of scoring 1.45 points per possession is an effective field goal percentage of 75.0 or higher. Great offensive explosions skew heavily toward home games (77 percent of occurrences), while great shooting nights are far more idiosyncratic (just 51 percent of them happen at home). Think of coaches, players, and even home crowds as being largely in control of freakishly good happenings in the category of overall offense (such as we saw from Duke last night), while the hoops gods prefer to take over and say “We got this” with regard to magical shooting nights.

And it will never not be strange that the team that set the standard for per-possession scoring in a major-conference game between 2006 and 2018 was…DePaul?

DePaul: 1.64 points per trip. Go fight hoops city hall.