The budding sports journalists at The Chronicle, Duke's student newspaper, routinely churn out some of the best Duke coverage anywhere -- student papers are always either much better or much worse than you'd think; I've never seen an average student newspaper -- and today is no exception.
Seeking to debunk the theory that Duke declines over the course of its seasons, Alex Faranoff took to KenPom.com and charted the efficiency margin of every Duke game going back to 2004. Faranoff expected this theory to collapse. He "expected to shine the bright light of 'statistics' and 'math' on the anecdotal idiocy around me." Um, not so much:
As it turns out, Duke does have a tendency to fade down the stretch. The Blue Devils’ efficiency margin dropped, on average, by 0.01 points per possession per game. That doesn’t seem like much, but it adds up. Assuming 67-possession games (the national average), the Blue Devils declined by 13 points relative to their opponents over the course of the 19-game conference season (0.01 x 67 posessions x 19 games = 13 points). January’s double-digit win became March’s nail-biter—or even worse.
The coup de grace is the Chronicle's scatter plot, which makes these numbers almost painfully easy to digest. Faranoff doesn't concede the point that this decline is caused by Coach K's tendency to play his best players tons of minutes -- Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith are averaging 36.6, 35.5 and 35.2 minutes per game this season, respectively -- which is fair, because the numbers don't say why Duke declines. Just that it does.
If we're interested in forming hypotheses out of correlations, though, that's a pretty good place to start. Mike Krzyzewski hasn't used depth to his advantage much in recent years -- if ever -- and college basketball is a physical, occasionally grueling game. This year the strategy has been especially prevalent; freshman Andre Dawkins' minutes have plummeted in conference play, for example. It's fair to wonder if those starters' minute totals are too much, if Duke's best players lose a step in February and March thanks to sheer accumulation.
Next project, math folks: Figure that one out.