Look back through Ken Pomeroy’s annual statistics, and a trend emerges.
In 2012, Duke ranked 81st nationally in adjusted defensively efficiency, giving up an average of 0.97 points per possession. In 2013, Duke ranked 31st (0.93). In 2014, Duke ranked 116th (1.02). In 2015, Duke ranked 12th (0.92). And this year, Duke currently ranks 145th out of 315 Division-I teams (1.02).
And the NCAA tournament fate of those Duke teams, in order: lost in round of 64 (Lehigh), Elite Eight (Louisville), lost in round of 64 (Mercer), national champions and to be determined.
And one more set of factors to consider: the makeup of those teams. The 2012 bunch was led offensively by freshmen Austin Rivers. The 2013 team had a senior trio of Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry and Ryan Kelly. In 2014, Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood led the offense. And last year’s team had a once-in-a-generation type of freshman class (Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow, Tyus Jones and Grayson Allen) with Quinn Cook as the senior captain.
It’s not a huge surprise that older, more experienced teams defend better. The longer players have to learn the system and effort level necessary, the better the results will be. Top-line talent can somewhat compensate for experience, as last year showed. This year, Duke has neither, or at least not enough talent to overcome the lack of a second post player.
Allen said this week that the Blue Devils need to talk more of defense – a constant refrain this season. Still, he sees that as an area of needed improvement for the Blue Devils. It certainly couldn’t hurt, as Duke has struggled in both man-to-man and a 2-3 zone this year.
Amile Jefferson’s return should help the defense. He is their best option for defending ball-screens, as he can switch onto guards and keep up with them to finish out a possession. But it would be unwise to pin all hope on Jefferson returning and playing at the same high level he was before he was hurt.
Duke will have to play at least one more game without him Tuesday at Georgia Tech, and the Blue Devils need to start winning now. And if history holds, they’ll need to improve on the defensive end to survive the first weekend of the big dance.