Defensively, Duquesne is a team that has both improved and stayed the same.
The two qualities seem contradictory, especially in a world where you’re almost compelled to take one side of an argument while ignoring another, constantly opting for ‘but’ instead of ‘and’.
It’s true, though.
The Dukes have gotten noticeably better on defense, where they now rank 207th in defensive efficiency, giving up about 105 points per 100 possessions. At the end of last season, they were 322nd and giving up almost 111.
For all of that progress, they still struggle defending the 3-pointer and, in many respects, have actually gotten worse it. After Wednesday’s loss to Fordham, Duquesne is allowing teams to shoot 40.5 percent from beyond the arc, the fourth-worst mark in Division I. For reference, the 10th-best 3-point shooting team in the country, Virginia, is making 40.7 percent of its 3s. So, based on the stats, merely playing against Duquesne transforms a squad into a top-10 team from 3. That’s damning and it’s a major reason why the team is where it is now, at 15-15 after eight-consecutive losses and wondering where the hell its season went.
In Atlantic 10 play, here’s a chart that shows the effect playing the Dukes has on other teams and their ability to make 3s.
This isn’t inherently a Jim Ferry problem – his second-to-last team at LIU was remarkably good at defending the 3, ranking eighth nationally in 3-point defense in 2011 – but it’s a product of a few different factors.
We’ll start with the issue of shorter guards. I don’t want to entirely dispel this notion because there is some truth to it, but given how frequently it is brought up in this discussion, I think it’s really overplayed.
Duquesne’s two guards, Derrick Colter and Micah Mason, are 5-11 and 6-2, respectively. Having a 6-2 shooting guard at the A-10 level isn’t all that unusual, even if some teams are a little bigger. It’s part of the reason I’ve never liked this argument, because it feels like an unfair onus is being placed on Colter. But it is true that their guards, at a combined 145 inches, skew more toward the short end.
But here’s the thing – I’m not sure how big of an impact that has (no pun intended). About half of the A-10 has a similarly-tall group of primary guards and yet Duquesne is, by far, the worst team at defending the 3. I’ve got it detailed a little more below.
While some of your taller teams like Saint Louis, George Washington and Saint Joseph’s are excellent at defending the 3, teams that are as tall as or shorter than Duquesne manage to give up a smaller percentage than the Dukes. Again, I think it has some impact, but a more negligible one.
The biggest variable in all of this is Duquesne’s defensive scheme. Over the summer, it went back to a man-to-man look that heavily incorporated elements of the pack-line defense [Cliff Notes version: players focus on not necessarily their man, but the ball and once the ball gets worked inside, the team collapses and tries to prevent penetration to the basket].
The pack-line approach has certainly been effective in limiting 2-pointers, on which their opponents are shooting just 42.2 percent (11th in DI), but it has made them more susceptible from deep. When a player gets into the lane, the Dukes’ defense becomes more compact as they provide help defense, which leaves opponents wandering around the perimeter with a nice little cushion for an open shot if their team is able to kick it back out to them quickly enough.
Ferry acknowledged as much after the loss to Fordham Wednesday.
“We weren’t good at it last year, either, but we weren’t good at anything defensively,” he said. “We had to get back and start from the basket out, which we’ve done. Now, you’ve got to get better at understanding it. We work on it, we show film on it. We’re showing appropriate help, but I think sometimes, we’re over-helping.”
This isn’t to say playing the pack-line dooms a team to be nothing more than a sieve from beyond the arc. Last season, for example, Virginia was 24th in 3-point field goal defense. Of course, there’s an important distinction to be made. Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers’ coach, has been utilizing the pack-line throughout his coaching career and his father, Dick, is widely credited as being the person who invented it. Duquesne, by contrast, first implanted this last summer as a way to improve a sagging defense and while it has helped, the team clearly lacks a deep familiarity with it.
One final, and overlooked, reason goes back to Duquesne’s big men. Few, if any, of the team’s forwards and centers are particularly skilled passers and the player who was arguably the best at it, TySean Powell, is no longer on the roster. It’s something reflected in the teams’ assist numbers, as no big other than Powell averages more than 0.9 assists per game (L.G. Gill, who plays more on the perimeter anyway).
This ties in somewhat with the pack-line discussion. The big men who the Dukes practice against are, obviously, their own, meaning that when they compress as a defense when the ball is thrown down low, they rarely have to worry about that low-post player throwing the ball effectively back out to an open 3-point shooter. Unfortunately for them, the A-10 is littered with skilled forwards who are strong outlet passers, many of whom have been able to take advantage of this against Duquesne, using this inside-out passing to get open 3s for teammates.
When you add all of these things together, you have a team that’s now in a relatively desperate position. The 3-point struggles’ role in defining the success of Duquesne’s defense doesn’t require a deep statistical dive – the 3-pointer is worth 50 percent more points than any other shot and when you routinely can’t defend that more valuable shot, you’re going to be in some trouble.
In some ways, it makes the defensive improvement this season seem like a mirage. At 41.5 percent, Duquesne is 77th in Division I in field goal percentage defense. But when you examine effective field goal percentage, which gives more weight to 3s since they’re worth more, Duquesne is at 49.2 percent and ranks 133rd.
Ineffective perimeter defense isn’t why the Dukes are in the position they are, but it’s among a handful of reasons why they are, barring a late surge, polishing off another underwhelming season.