DURHAM -- Statistics certainly don’t define a season. But they do provide illumination.
There are many ways to view the 2011-12 Duke men’s basketball season utitilizing stats. Some numbers hit you right between the eyes. Others are more subtle.
Let’s start with the number 12.
That’s how many years it’s been since Mike Krzyzewski was honored as ACC Coach of the Year by the conference media. Since he won the award in 2000 his Duke teams have gone to the NCAAs every season, won eight ACC Tournaments, reached three Final Fours, and captured two national championships.
Not to mention that Krzyzewski recently became the men’s coach with the most career victories in major-college history, finishing the 2012 season with 927.
So, in this regard numbers define not only what happened, but what’s missing.
This comes to mind when reviewing how many times Krzyzewski spoke openly of the struggles he and his staff endured trying to corral, define, and direct the 2012 Blue Devils.
There were the inexplicably slow starts, as at Ohio State in November and repeatedly thereafter. There were reckless lulls after building large leads, as against St. John’s at Cameron Indoor Stadium in January.
There was the search for a dependable playmaker, a reliable go-to scorer, a consistent interior threat. There were the accommodations made to the squad’s slowly evolving defensive consciousness. There was the reality of replacing Kyle Singler, a four-year stalwart, and Nolan Smith, the 2011 ACC Player of the Year.
All of this undertaken against the backdrop of one of the nation’s toughest schedules, including eight nonconference opponents that appeared in the NCAA tournament: Belmont, Colorado State, Davidson, Kansas, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Temple.
Yet Duke finished 27-7 and ended the ACC regular season at 13-3, one game behind North Carolina. The Blue Devils landed in the top half of the league for the 17th straight year and won 22 or more games for the 16th season in a row. No other ACC program comes close to matching those numbers.
Given the circumstances, this was surely one of Krzyzewski’s better coaching efforts, the number of wins perhaps the most impressive statistic compiled by Duke this past season.
One place where the region’s media hit the mark was in voting for 2012 ACC Rookie of the Year.
Austin Rivers led Duke and all ACC freshmen in scoring with a 15.5-point average. That was third-best for a freshman in school history after Johnny Dawkins (18.1 in 1983) and Gene Banks in 1978 (17.1). Rivers often was Duke’s scoring option of last resort; his shot to beat UNC at Chapel Hill will be remembered as long as the series is played.
Only Dawkins preceded Rivers in leading the Blue Devils in scoring as a freshman. No freshman at Duke took or made as many field goals as Rivers in the 40 seasons that first-year students were eligible for varsity competition.
Understandably, then, Rivers was a unanimous choice for ACC Rookie of the Year.
So, what’s the problem?
Well, since Jim Spanarkel won the ACC’s first rookie award in 1976, Rivers is only the sixth Duke freshman so honored and the third during Krzyzewski’s 32-year tenure. (The others were Mike Gminski in 1977, Banks, Chris Duhon in 2001, and Kyle Singler in 2008.) No Dawkins, Danny Ferry, Christian Laettner, Grant Hill, Elton Brand, Shane Battier, Luol Deng, Jason Williams, or J.J. Redick, to name the most obvious possibilities.
True, not every one debuted with a splash, and there was plenty of competition. But one gets the sense that, as with Krzyzewski and coach of the year honors, familiarity breeds a certain blindness. Duke’s level of achievement is so routinely high, it’s come to be expected.
This year’s achievement -- a fifth consecutive finish in the top 10 in the final Associated Press poll, Duke’s 16th in the last 17 seasons – certainly met expectations, other than a quick NCAA exit.
The nature of that accomplishment can be appreciated by defining weaknesses as well as strengths.
Over the course of the 2012 season, Duke had only eight more assists than turnovers. This was the Devils’ least-handsome ratio since 2007, when the team mishandled the ball more often than it set up baskets. Still, to put the ballhandling in perspective, Duke ranked sixth in the ACC in its ratio of assists to turnovers. It also ranked fourth with 12.4 assists per game.
More telling when examining efficient offensive execution, the ’12 season saw Duke achieve an assist on a mere 48.4 percent of its field goals. The last time the Devils hit so pronounced a go-it-alone mark was 1998, when they recorded assists on 47.5 percent of their baskets.
Nobody on this past year’s unit managed 100 assists; the leader was Seth Curry with 83. Only Krzyzewski’s first two clubs, in 1981 and 1982, failed to produce a 100-assist player.
On the flip side of this equation the 2012 team attempted more free throws per game (25.4) than any Duke squad since 2003 (27.2). This perhaps reflected more players creating their own scoring opportunities, which would inherently reduce assists.
Interestingly, the team’s 45.6 field goal accuracy was not out of line with recent Duke efforts. Two of the three immediately preceding Blue Devil squads, including the 2010 national champions, were less accurate from the floor.
Contrasted with opponents, however, the 2.3 percent differential in field goal accuracy in 2012 was among the four lowest since Krzyzewski returned from injury and exhaustion in 1996.
Speaking of field goals, if you got the sense this year’s team was more reliant than usual on 3-pointers, you were correct. The ’12 crew tried 38.6 percent of its shots from the bonusphere. Since the three went into permanent effect 26 seasons ago, only the 2001, 2005, and 2008 Blue Devils relied more heavily on threes as a portion of their shots.
Duke’s 2012 season was anomalous from the defensive side as well.
Early on it was apparent the team’s mental and physical characteristics didn’t lend themselves to the sort of defensive pressure most commonly associated with Krzyzewski’s program. True to that impression, the Devils averaged 6.2 steals per outing, fewest since 1996.
Curry led the ’12 team with 43 steals in 34 games; that was a low for Duke’s leader since ’96, when current assistant Chris Collins had 37 in 31 games.
The media made much of Duke’s field goal percentage defense (.433), which ranked tenth in the ACC. But the Blue Devils were far from defensive pushovers, and not so divergent from program norms: Seventeen previous Krzyzewski squads allowed higher opponent accuracy, including teams in 2008 and 2009.
Ultimately, to appreciate the struggle involved in winning 27 times in 2012, consider one final number.
Coaches frequently cite their club’s small margin of error. Krzyzewski didn’t use the term much this past season, but could have. Duke averaged an 8.7-point scoring edge. That was second-best in the ACC, but the smallest for a Coach K squad since he returned to the sidelines in 1996.