(Photo: Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
I had a story in today's Post-Gazette detailing Duquesne's defensive improvement this season, particularly down low, where they rank among the top 15 teams nationally in opponents' 2-point percentage.
The Dukes' progress defensively, at least on the interior, is something most anyone who has watched a game this season has noticed. And while my story details how that change came about -- switching to a defense with pack-line principles that aims to clog up lanes and prevent penetration -- I can only go so deep into the numbers that illustrate how and why they're so much better defensively.
So with the infinite space of the Internet and a forum that's more conducive to wonkish statistics, I wanted to take a closer look at those changes.
Teams aren't getting to the rim as frequently
Conventional basketball wisdom states that, unless you're a mutant outside shooter like Steph Curry, the closer you are to the basket, the more likely your shot is to go in.
While Duquesne is still a dismal at defending the 3-pointer, something they've almost resigned themselves to given their relatively short backcourt, they aren't letting opponents get to the rim as effectively. Only 31 percent of the total shots taken against the Dukes this season have come at the rim, the fourth-lowest percentage in the Atlantic 10. That means that if opponents aren't taking 3s and they go inside the arc, they are, more often than not, settling for long 2s, which is as inefficient of a shot as there is in basketball.
Which brings us to the next topic...
When opponents are getting to the rim, they're getting blocked more
As the chart above showed, Duquesne is blocking 14.2 percent of shots taken at the rim, the second-best mark among A-10 teams, behind only Rhode Island, which has three of the conference's best shot-blockers on its roster (Hassan Martin, Earl Watson and Kuran Iverson).
At the epicenter of this trend is Darius Lewis. For how much more comfortable and adept as the 6-11 junior has looked offensively this season, he has been even better defensively. He is blocking 9.4 percent of 2s when he is on the court, up from 7.8 percent last year. His current mark is the 31st-best among Division I players.
They're preventing offensive rebounds and second-chance points
I didn't get to touch on this as much as I would have hoped to in the story (damn you, shrinking news hole), but Duquesne's improvement in preventing offensive rebounds has been perhaps the most important facet of this turnaround. While the Dukes weren't particularly bad at defending the 2 last season -- 47.7 percent, right around the middle of all college basketball teams -- they were horrid when it came to the defensive glass, allowing opponents to grab an offensive rebound on exactly one out of every three missed shots (277th in Division I).
What were once woes have now become a strength. Duquesne's opponents are now getting offensive rebounds on just 26.7 percent of their missed shots, ranking it among the 60 best teams in the country in that category. That figure is the product of several individuals who have improved as rebounders from last season to this one. During the 2014-15 campaign, only three Dukes grabbed at least 16 percent of available defensive rebounds when they were on the court -- Domo McKoy, TySean Powell and Lewis. This season, that number has doubled to six -- Nakye Sanders, Jordan Robinson, Powell, Lewis, L.G. Gill and Eric James.
We'll finish things up with a few thoughts and observations from the three people I spoke with for today's story. This goes into the topic a little bit more in depth and helps give you a better understanding of the team's progress on defense.
“Last year, our back line was so young. We had all freshmen and sophomore forwards and the sophomores barely played. We struggled in conversion, we fouled too much and we couldn’t contain the ball. That’s why we had to go to a 2-3 zone.”
“I spent so much time and my staff spent so much time studying analytics, film and everything to help change our defense this year. As soon as the season ended last year, there was a self-evaluation process of the way we played defense and what we needed to do to change it. We realized with our lack of length at the guard positions, we weren’t going to be a great 3-point field goal percentage defensive team, so we had to clean up everything else. And we’ve done a really good job of that. We’ve packed it in a little bit tighter. Our personnel is older and more experienced with it.”
“They’ve gotten better and better and better at it. The kids have totally bought into it. We defend with a lot of pride and we play faster defensively. We’ve carried over our mantra to offensive tempo to play faster on defense. We’re closing out gaps quicker. We’re just a tough team to score on getting to the basket and around the rim. Darius’ development from late last season has carried over. He’s a big body and a big rim protector.”
“Because of the way we defend, and we defend inside the arc very well, it puts us in better rebounding position. We’re making people make shots over us. We’re not allowing lanes to the basket. We’re crowding the post, we’re contesting every shot and we’re being physical with our block-outs. It’s something we preach in the program every day.”
“We take away peoples’ comfort. You saw it in the first half against St. Bonaventure. They just weren’t very comfortable. There’s not that freedom of space to drive it because we close down gaps quickly, so we have to make people kick it out. That’s a lower-percentage shot when you do that.”
“We don’t want the ball to come inside, whether it’s with the pass or with the dribble. So it’s two-fold. When the floor gets extended and there are ball screens, you have to be able to defend that. And we simply have to keep the ball from the inside. Because we have versatile guys, it’s not always a physical thing.”
“Every day it’s a process getting guys to understand you have to play closer to the ball than your man. Ideally, you want five people to be concentrating on guarding the ball. It’s easier said than done, but if you do that, it helps your defense. As opposed to being a help defensive team, we want to play in the gaps. We want to play inside-out, but we want to shrink the court and give you fewer options for where the ball can go. Whereas last year, it was just a matter of time before the ball found a man who was going to make the shot. That’s a terrible way to play defense, but that’s where we were.”
“If we weren’t scoring, we weren’t guarding. Now, our defense has motivated us and given us energy. We’re playing off of it. For coach Ferry’s style of play, it’s perfect.”
“Everything moving faster was one thing coach really wanted us to hone in on. You’ve got to be in two places at once and be able to make two plays in order to be good defensively. We’re kind of trying to do that.”
“It just grew. I don’t think there was a set time where everything clicked, but it kind of built and built and built. It has potential to get even better as the season goes along.”
“They’re a lot more uncomfortable. We played that zone last year, but this year, it almost seems like we’re forcing teams to take tough 2s. Last year, we really struggled in conversion and getting back.”
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