Saturday’s headlining game features the offenses ranked 1st (Duke) and 12th (West Virginia) in adjusted offensive efficiency, compared with 25th (Michigan State) and 46th (Butler). So it obviously features the better shooting teams, right? Nope:
Duke and WVU made it this far not because they make the most of their opportunities, but because they get so many more opportunities than their opponents. They’re both great rebounding teams, and also come out on the plus side of the turnover balance sheet. In fact, when you add together their rebounding and scoring margins, they are the top two major conference teams in the country, in terms of creating extra chances for themselves, with both averaging over +6 in combined Reb+TO margin. Obviously they can’t both keep this up on Saturday, and whoever wins the “extra chances” battle will have a very good chance of extending their season.
Now let’s get more specific, and look at what to expect when Duke has the ball:
Duke’s not going to be able to get a lot going from inside the arc, as they’re below average in 2P% while WVU is on the plus side. And not shown here is the fact that the same is true for Block%, meaning the interior defense of Wellington Smith and John Flowers may end up playing a key role. Flowers had 3 blocks in 23 minutes against Kentucky, and I’d expect the two players to combine for at least that many against Duke.
But as indicated above, Duke’s emphasis is on using offensive rebounding and a low turnover rate to ensure they get a lot of looks at the basket – a good shooting night would just be icing on the cake. West Virginia is above average at defensive rebounding and forcing turnovers, but just barely. Here is how they fared this season against major conference teams in the top 30 in OReb%:
It’s going to be tough to beat Duke if they allow another 40% offensive rebounding night. They were able to overcome that against Kentucky by holding them to a low shooting percentage (37.3 eFG%) and forcing a lot of turnovers (22.6%). They might be able to hold Duke to similar shooting numbers, but likely won’t be able to force them into that many turnovers. Duke should be able to take care of the ball, and get a lot of first and second shot opportunities, but their best looks will be long jumpers. How efficiency they are will ultimately come down to whether they are hitting those jumpers.
You may have noticed above that West Virginia plays at a slow pace, and are wondering whether that will frustrate Duke. No, not at all – the Blue Devils have played 12 straight games at a sub-70-possession pace, and for the year they are 17-1 in games with 65 or less possessions. Shouldn’t be an issue.
Now how about when West Virginia has the ball:
This is going to read a lot like the section above, so I’ll keep it relatively short. West Virginia should also have trouble getting open first looks on offense, but Duke defends the perimeter (1st in 3P% against, 10th in fewest 3PA/FGA) better than the interior (39th in 2P%), so the Mountaineers won’t have as many open long jumpers as Duke will (nor as many as they had in the first half against Kentucky). However, WVU is even less dependent on good shooting than Duke is, as they’re even better at offensive rebounding (and because they shoot more 3’s, there are a few more rebounds for them to grab). They also get to the line slightly more, but it’s a small advantage.
So if everything holds true to form, West Virginia’s offense will look largely the same as Duke’s. They’ll turn it over a bit more, and probably shoot a bit worse (especially from long range). But they’ll draw a few more fouls, and grab a few more rebounds. The core strategy will be the same, though – throw it towards the hoop, then go and get it in the likely event that it misses.
Let’s look at the Similarity Prediction:
Vegas has the Blue Devils favored by 2.5, and Pomeroy’s numbers have them even stronger. The similarity analysis disagrees, showing that both teams have performed nearly the same in games against similar opponents – which makes perfect sense, given that both teams use the same volume-over-efficiency strategy on offense, and both rely on good FG% defense (as opposed to turnovers or rebounding) at the other end. Duke and West Virginia usually miss a lot of shots, but make up for it with excellent offensive rebounding. If one of them starts hitting their first chance shots, or if one can dominate the boards, that team will probably win. Duke is better at shooting and defending the three point line, and that advantage is what separates the two teams statistically. But given West Virginia’s first half against Kentucky, it should be clear that anything can happen in a span of 30 possessions. Duke’s perimeter advantage will likely be less important than the advantage that one of these teams gains through luck – or clutchness, or heart, or whatever you want to call it. So I feel comfortable with the similarity prediction – Duke as a slight favorite, but really anybody’s game.