We’re not making predictions or assumptions. Not really. Not specifically.
We’re just noticing a few interesting traits and trends.
For most of the past three decades, at least until recently, the NCAA couldn’t conduct a Final Four without representation from the ACC. Contend for the top during the ACC regular season, and it’s almost a given that puts you in the race for the national title.
That’s certainly been the case for Duke and North Carolina, which between them have more Final Four appearances since 1990 than any entire league except the ACC itself.
A key to that prowess, at least for the Blue Devils, is the quality of the nonconference schedule, coupled with always-bracing competition within the conference. “The regular season should prepare you for tournaments,” Mike Krzyzewski said awhile back.
Duke’s 2013 non-league schedule, which concluded the other day with a victory over Davidson in Charlotte, was both formidable and defining. Lineups were investigated, skills honed, strategies explored, pressured confronted, strengths confirmed.
Now the full slate of 18 ACC games, followed by the ACC Tournament, is about to commence, and with it another level of testing for the Devils.
Already Duke has returned to the top of the Associated Press poll, the 16th different season Krzyzewski led a team to such prominence. Of course reaching No. 1 has transitory meaning beyond the dose of confidence it engenders.
As an indicator of Duke’s eventual accomplishment, a No. 1 ranking is not to be lightly dismissed.
In 15 previous seasons in which Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils topped the polls, they went on to reach the Final Four seven times (1986, 1989, 1992, 1994, 1999, 2001, 2004.) All but one of those 15 teams – 1993 -- advanced at least to the Sweet 16.
Eleven of the previous 15 Duke squads taken to a No. 1 ranking by Krzyzewski went on to win the ACC Tournament too.
But there are other ways to look ahead, more subtle indicators of Duke’s ultimate achievement based on regular-season performance.
All of Coach K’s Final Four teams had at least three scorers in double figures. Four of the last seven had five players average 10 or more, just like this year’s Blue Devils. (Mason Plumlee, Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly, Rasheed Sulaimon, Quinn Cook.)
The majority of the 11 Final Four teams (six) made fewer than half their shots from the floor, mirroring the current unit (.482). The 1999 Duke squad was the only one of the last five national semifinalists to hit more than half its field goal tries.
But six of the program’s last seven Final Four entrants outshot their opponents by at least 6.4 percent. The ’13 Devils are 10 percent more accurate than their rivals.
What’s more, the last five Final Four participants held opponents to accuracy at or below 41.6 percent. Duke’s 13 opponents in ’13 are hitting at a 38.2 percent clip.
All but two of Coach K’s Final Four teams (1989 and 2001) made at least 70 percent of their free throws – just like this year’s group (.738). And all but the 2001 Blue Devils achieved at least 20.6 percent of their points at the foul line. The 2013 squad has performed slightly ahead of that rate (22.2 percent).
Over Krzyzewski’s first 32 seasons at Durham, eight of his teams made more free throws than their opponents attempted. This year’s squad holds such a statistical advantage (231-197).
Half of the previous squads with such a free throw edge reached the Final Four – in 1994, 1992, 1994, and 1999.
Duke’s Final Four teams have supped more avidly on 3-pointers this century than was the case previously.
The last three Blue Devil squads to reach the game’s ultimate weekend (2001, 2004, 2010) relied on threes for at least 26 percent of their field goals.
The 1999 team relied on bonusphere marksmanship for 23.6 percent of its field goals. Prior to that, none of Krzyzewski’s Final Four entrants scoring more than 18 percent of their baskets from beyond the arc.
This year’s Devils acquire 27.5 percent of their field goals from 3-pointers.
Some other unifying stats are no-brainers.
Every one of Krzyzewski’s Final Four teams outrebounded opponents. This year, as in 1994, that edge is less than one rebound per game.
Not every club during the Krzyzewski era enjoyed at edge on the boards – six did not, most recently in 2006. That group incidentally spent 14 weeks atop the polls, finishing at No. 1.
Every one of Krzyzewski’s Final Four teams had more assists than turnovers. This year’s team has 4.5 more assists per game than turnovers.
Such an edge isn’t automatic – seven of Coach K’s squads had more turnovers than assists. That last happened in 2007 which, like 2012, ended with a spinout in Duke’s NCAA opener.
Assists on at least 53 percent of their baskets also has been a requisite for Duke’s modern Final Four teams. This year’s club is so inter-reliant, just under 58 percent of its scores are directly reliant on a pass.
Again, this statistical profile is far from a given. Just last season the Blue Devils didn’t match passes to baskets even half the time.
Now, we’re not saying congruencies between previous Final Four teams under Krzyzewski and this year’s squad, or between previous top-ranked teams under Krzyzewski and this year’s squad, or even divergences between Coach K’s weaker teams and this year’s squad, are determinative.
Reassuring, certainly, for those who want Duke to excel. Suggestive, to be sure.
Krzyzewski has prospered by gathering talented prospects and molding them into cohesive units. His approach is highly adaptable, and is frequently recalibrated to best handle changing individual and team strengths and weaknesses. Still, a consistency of approach, a basic set of imperatives, does unite his teams. Within familiar perameters, close scrutiny of stats can illuminate whether a Duke club is on track toward high-level achievement.
On that basis, 2013 clearly is shaping up rather well.