Ten Takeaways From the Big Ten/ACC Challenge

Posted by Andy Gripshover on December 3rd, 2015

Another year down, another tally in the win column for the Big Ten in what is the top challenge series that college basketball has to offer. Per the norm, the teams that have traditionally dominated this series continued to do so, but there were some surprises along the way. Here are 10 key takeaways from this season’s event.

1. The Big Ten won again. Iowa’s thrilling 78-75 overtime victory over Florida State in Iowa City clinched back-to-back Challenge victories for the conference, with five of the last seven events going to the Big Ten. With the other two ties (2012 and 2013), it remains true that the ACC hasn’t won the challenge since George W. Bush was still President back in December 2008. That’s a really long time. It’s even longer when you consider that the ACC won every challenge during his presidency as well as the final two years of Bill Clinton.

Iowa guard Peter Jok, left, celebrates with teammates after an NCAA college basketball game against Florida State, Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2015, in Iowa City, Iowa. Jok scored 24 points as Iowa won 78-75 in overtime. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

Peter Jok (left), who notched 24 points in Iowa’s 78-75 victory in overtime over Florida State, was one of the shining stars of the challenge. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)

2. Duke won again. The Blue Devils are a staggering 15-2 lifetime in the challenge and are undefeated at Cameron Indoor Stadium (7-0) during that time. This is even more impressive when you consider that Duke almost always draws one of the Big Ten’s best teams. You have to go back to 2011 Michigan State (19-15) to find a Duke opponent that didn’t win at least 28 games that season, and before that, 2006 Indiana (19-12) is the other one that didn’t win at least 20. Granted, this year’s Indiana squad is looking like it will slot in nicely with those couple of outliers. Read the rest of this entry »

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Ben Simmons’ Debut Season Is Becoming Special

Posted by William Ezekowitz on November 30th, 2015

The Ben Simmons bandwagon is filling up quickly. The LSU freshman came into the season hyped as the next big prospect to go one-and-done and first overall in the NBA Draft, joining an illustrious group of NBA stars (and Anthony Bennett) in the process. But his double-take-inducing statistics and the raw athleticism exhibited in the first five games have led many to ask if he can be even more than that.

Ben Simmons May Be Working On One Of The All-Time Great Freshman Seasons (Photo: Getty)

Ben Simmons May Already Be Working on an All-Time Great Freshman Season. (Getty)

Simmons’ season has been so incredible through two weeks that we feel the need to examine where he fits amongst the best freshmen in the modern era of college basketball. If we were to be measured and retrospective, we would take a deep breath and say that he’s only played five games, three of which were against the likes of McNeese State, Kennesaw State and South Alabama. But that reasoned perspective is somewhat antithetical to sports media and the blogosphere in general, so let’s overreact and see how the superstar rookie fares against some of his historical comparisons. We will start with the one-and-done era, which began in 2006.

Keep in mind that Simmons, at the time of this writing, is averaging 16.2 points, 14.4 rebounds and 6.2 assists per game.

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Overvaluing Previous Year’s Success in Preseason Rankings

Posted by William Ezekowitz on November 20th, 2015

Part of what makes college basketball both exciting and maddening is that each year we have to throw out the previous year’s assumptions and start from scratch. If that wasn’t apparent before this season started, it became painfully obvious when mighty Wisconsin, last year’s national runner-up, lost to Western Illinois, the worst team in last year’s Summit Conference. But perhaps it is the case that we don’t erase the previous year from our memory at the beginning of each season as much as we should. The Badgers, despite retaining just three of the eight players who earned meaningful minutes and bringing in zero top 100 recruits, were still ranked 17th in the preseason polls. In fact, 13 of last year’s Sweet Sixteen teams started the season in the USA Today Preseason Top 25. Can the success of all of these programs be so stable? Or are we perhaps suffering from recency bias, where we tend to overvalue teams that have recently succeeded, even if the personnel structures of those teams have drastically changed?

Wisconsin made the Final Four last year, and look to return.

Wisconsin is a Possible Example of Recency Bias in Polls. 

In order to answer this question, I checked the preseason and postseason USA Today Coaches’ Polls (with postseason being taken after the conclusion of the NCAA Tournament), and checked how many Sweet Sixteen teams from the previous season were in each poll. If we are overvaluing Sweet Sixteen teams, then there would consistently be more teams from the previous year’s Sweet Sixteen in the preseason poll than in the postseason poll, which would indicate that Sweet Sixteen teams have dropped out due to poor performance.

This is exactly what has happened. Going back seven years, the number of previous year’s Sweet Sixteen teams has always been greater in the preseason poll than in the postseason poll. Of 112 possible Sweet Sixteen teams to choose from in those seven years, 77 have appeared in the preseason poll and just 61 have appeared in the postseason poll. A difference of proportions test reveals that these two numbers are significantly different from each other at the 95 percent confidence level, which, in layman’s terms, means that this trend is too strong to write off as pure coincidence.

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Holiday Tournament Previews: Puerto Rico Tip-Off & Charleston Classic

Posted by Andy Gripshover on November 19th, 2015

One of the true beauties of non-conference play in November is all of the various tournaments and the match-ups that they enable. With multiple events tipping off this weekend, let’s start this series of previews by analyzing two of the bigger annual events — the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (bracket) and the Charleston Classic (bracket).

Puerto Rico Tip-Off

Potential top-10 pick Jakob Poeltl and Utah headline a strong Puerto Rico Tip Off tourney. (AP)

Potential top-10 pick Jakob Poeltl and Utah headline a strong Puerto Rico Tip-Off. (AP)

  • Favorite: Utah. Just about everyone other than Delon Wright and Dallin Bachynski is back, and Brandon Taylor can fill enough of Wright’s shoes without making the team so reliant on any one player. Arizona is the Pac-12 favorite by default this season but it’s looking incredibly wide open after that and it ultimately may come down to the Utes defending their second-place crown against upstart Cal.
  • Darkhorse: Butler. It’s Butler in a tournament setting — you’re not quite sure you see the Bulldogs coming but you’re not surprised when they do. Roosevelt Jones (yes, he’s still there) and Kellen Dunham (yep, him too) lead a team that dropped a Big East record 144 points on The Citadel transitioning from Chuck Driesell (344th in adjusted pace last year) to Duggar Baucom (the former VMI coach who was perpetually first)
  • Most on the line: Miami, Minnesota, Temple. The Hurricanes might be the most interesting team in this tournament. That’s not a surprise considering they were also one of the most interesting teams for most of last season. Will they be the “winning at Cameron by 16” Miami or the “losing at home to Eastern Kentucky” Miami? Probably somewhere in-between. The Gophers are entering Year Three of the Richard Pitino Experiment, but closed Year Two by losing six of their final eight games. They’ll be eager to get off to a good start. The Owls couldn’t keep it close with a Marcus Paige-less UNC team in Annapolis and they have as much on the line as any team this weekend by virtue of their status as annual NCAA bubble candidates.

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The 2014-15 College Basketball Season: The Story of 38-1

Posted by Bennet Hayes on April 8th, 2015

The legacy of the this season’s Duke Blue Devils has been affirmed and the record books will forever remember Coach K’s band of youngsters as the 2015 National Champions. His was a talented group that was very good in November and great by April, completing a transformation that left them fully deserving of the esteemed opinions that will forever accompany them. One could even make a case that this team was as good or better than any National Champion in the last decade; the Blue Devils may not have been perfect, but they proved elite in a top-heavy year that included several great teams. The funny thing is, though, that when we think back on the this college basketball season in 20 years, NOBODY will begin the conversation with Duke. From November 14 until April 4, the only story in college basketball was Kentucky. Mike Krzyzewski’s club managed to steal the spotlight just in time for championship Monday, but even the Blue Devils’ historic season will be viewed through the prism of Kentucky’s unfulfilled chase of perfection. It says here that history will be kind to those Wildcats.

The Blue Devils Are Deserving National Champions, But Duke's Title Doesn't Mean Kentucky's Historic Season Will Be Soon Forgotten

The Blue Devils Are Deserving National Champions, But Duke’s Title Doesn’t Mean Kentucky’s Historic Season Will Be Soon Forgotten

Chatter about John Calipari’s platoon system dominated the early November college basketball news cycle in both Lexington and nationally. The early success of his team’s five-for-five substitutions included a 32-point pasting of Kansas and a dominant dissection of UCLA (remember when Kentucky held 28-2 and 43-7 leads against the Bruins en route to a 39-point win?) and did NOTHING to shift the spotlight off of Cal’s ‘Cats. It wasn’t as if compelling storylines weren’t emerging elsewhere — the Jahlil Okafor/Frank Kaminsky National Player of the Year race was well underway by the end of 2014; as was Virginia’s program-validating opening surge (12-0 in 2014 would eventually become 19-0 by late January), while Arizona, Villanova and Northern Iowa were all busy laying groundwork for their wildly successful seasons to come. Interesting things were happening all across the college basketball landscape, but we couldn’t take our eyes off of the doings in Lexington. This Wildcats’ season reeked of history from the get-go.

Kentucky’s season ended somewhere short of history on Saturday night, or at least the kind of history that the Wildcats had envisioned making. Just seven days after winning the most watched college basketball game in cable television history, Kentucky lost the most watched Final Four game in 19 years. The sudden and dramatic presence of a number other than zero in the loss column ended the coupled dreams of both perfect season and national title, but the magnitude of fans following the Kentucky experience made one thing very clear: These Wildcats had already made history. John Calipari certainly thought so: “This season is historic,” he said. “I just can’t believe anybody is going to do what these kids just did to get to this point unblemished with the schedule they played, then how they did it.”

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As Kentucky Takes Aim at History, Wildcats Have Everyone’s Attention

Posted by Bennet Hayes on March 9th, 2015

It’s not that Kentucky’s perfect regular season was never in doubt, because it often was. It took three overtime periods to dispatch the Wildcats’ first two SEC opponents (Mississippi and Texas A&M). LSU was a Keith Hornsby three away from ending the perfect season (ask Arkansas how that can turn out). And just earlier this week, Georgia had the ‘Cats on the ropes, leading by nine points in Athens with under 10 minutes to play. Kentucky was tested time and time again this season, yet the Wildcats found a way to outscore their opponents 31 times without fail. Fill in your own superlative here, because it’s been a truly historic run: No power conference team has completed a perfect regular season since Indiana did the trick on its way to a national title in 1976.

Kentucky's History-Making Season Continued Saturday. Up Next: The SEC Tournament. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Kentucky’s History-Making Season Continued Saturday. Up Next: The SEC Tournament. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Bids at perfection in college basketball – and in all sports, for that matter — are so often accompanied by a burdensome tension. As the wins pile up, the looming specter of history can turn the games into an exercise in survival. Kentucky has somehow avoided this transformation. No matter how sturdy the challenger or dire the circumstances, the Wildcats have steadfastly maintained control of their season. John Calipari has cultivated a respect for the process rarely found among groups of 18- to 20-year olds. Accordingly, Kentucky has yet to flinch in the face of a challenge — his team has never lost trust in either its coach or the plan. Lately, amid the discussion of Kentucky’s postseason chances, a tired cliché has been making the rounds. Some pundits have said, “the only team that can beat Kentucky is Kentucky.” If missing jump shots is somehow beating yourself, then sure, Kentucky might end up “beating itself.” But anyone familiar with the team’s entire of body of work within this 31-0 regular season will be quick to tell you that, more than anything else, these young Wildcats have always shown up. Expecting a deviation from that standard is silly, particularly when you consider the considerable motivational talents of Calipari.

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Syracuse Waves the White Flag on 2015

Posted by Bennet Hayes on February 5th, 2015

Syracuse may no longer reside in the Big East, but that didn’t stop bloggers from an old rival from putting their spin on yesterday’s news that the Orange had imposed a postseason ban on itself this season. Casual Hoya, the occasionally irreverent but always on-point voice of Georgetown fans, had this to say about the news from upstate New York.

The jab is certainly worth a chuckle, but it should also be good for a firm nod or two. Even as Jim Boeheim’s team currently sits at 15-7 (6-3 in the ACC), the NIT appeared to be a likely destination for the Orange if they had remained postseason-eligible. Their respectable record partially obscures that unpleasant reality, but it shouldn’t be enough to shield Boeheim’s brain trust from a bit of second-guessing on the timing of the announcement. Declining an NIT bid is hardly a sacrifice – heck, ask the Hoyas about that themselves – but Syracuse must be hoping that it will appear as if it is giving up a potential spot in the NCAA Tournament. To be fair, there definitely was enough time and opportunity for Syracuse to play its way into the field of 68; more likely, however, is that February 3 goes down as the high point of an otherwise uninspiring season, rendering the ban meaningless.

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Handicapping the Wooden Award Finalists

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 21st, 2015

The Wooden Award released its midseason top 25 list last week. College basketball’s top individual honor will likely go to a player named on that list, but there’s still time for others (attention: Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet, Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon and Syracuse’s Rakeem Christmas) to work their way into the picture. However, it’s also true that the field of real contenders for the award is thinning as we near February and March. RTC handicaps the race for the Wooden…

Jahlil Okafor, Duke. Odds To Win = 3/2.

Any national Player of the Year discussion must begin with Duke’s freshman sensation. Okafor’s averages of 18.6 points, 8.9 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game begin to explain his value to the Blue Devils, but the impact of his presence runs much deeper than that. His steadiness (double-figure points in every game this season) has stabilized a Duke attack that was far more reliant on the three-point shot a season ago, while his unselfishness has helped the Duke guards find space on the perimeter. The presumptive top pick in next June’s NBA Draft has looked like the best player in college basketball from opening night, but an April coronation as the National Player of the Year will surely depend on Duke’s success. Balance has fueled the rise of other national title contenders (Kentucky and Virginia most notable among them), but there is no question that Okafor will continue to lead the Duke charge. Pole position has been well-earned: This is Okafor’s award to lose.

At The Midway Point Of The Season, Duke Freshman Jahlil Okafor Is The Frontrunner To Win The Wooden Award. (Photo Credit: Getty Images)

At The Midway Point Of The Season, Duke Freshman Jahlil Okafor Is The Frontrunner To Win The Wooden Award. (Getty)

Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin. Odds To Win = 5/2.

Kaminsky nabbed the national spotlight last March with a show-stopping regional final performance against Arizona. He has not given it up since. ‘Frank the Tank’ is grabbing more rebounds (8.2 RPG this season), blocking more shots (1.8 BPG) and even handing out more assists (2.4 APG) than he did a year ago. The Wisconsin center has been outstanding all season, but his value to the Badgers may have been best exhibited in a 40 minute stint on the bench. As their star sat out with a concussion on January 11, Wisconsin fell to Rutgers in one of the most shocking results of the season. The loss showed just how important the versatile center has become for Bo Ryan’s team. A balanced Badgers’ lineup may pose some threat to Kaminsky’s Wooden Award chances, but that surrounding talent is also what’s made the his team legitimate national title contenders. And as Wisconsin chases that elusive championship, its versatile big man is making a serious push for the most prestigious of individual accolades.

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Fixing College Basketball: On Pace of Play and End of Game Scenarios

Posted by Andrew Murawa (@AMurawa) on January 16th, 2015

Last Saturday morning, I sat down to do something that I increasingly rarely do: I watched a full college basketball game on television, live and in real time. Ohio State at Indiana. A couple of teams I really like to watch — players like Troy Williams, Yogi Ferrell, D’Angelo Russell and Sam Thompson – all among my favorites in the sport this season. This was a game that featured a ton of thrilling plays, a strong but unsuccessful comeback by Ohio State in the final minutes including a potential game-tying shot — many of the elements that make for a great college basketball game. And yet, for the final four minutes, I was often bored out of my mind. Why? Let’s just look at a play-by-play, including real Eastern Standard Time and game time of the final 3:37 of action in a game that, while maybe a bit on the high end of the spectrum, was not in any way extraordinary in terms of length or length of crunch time.

If You Call One More Timeout, I'm Gonna Flip This Thing Right At You (Michael Conroy, AP Photo)

If You Call One More Timeout, I’m Gonna Flip This Thing Right At You (Michael Conroy, AP Photo)

Indiana/Ohio State (January 10, 2015) – Final Four Minutes

  • 1:51:51 PM EST With 3:37 left, Ohio State threw the ball out of bounds and initiated the under-four media timeout. At this point, the teams still had a combined seven timeouts remaining. It would take more than 30 minutes before this game, which ended in regulation time, finally ended.
  • 1:55:05 Ball inbounded following media timeout.
  • 1:55:15 (3:32 on game clock) Whistle blown following a James Blackmon layup and foul. Jae’Sean Tate fouls out.
  • 1:56:26 Blackmon’s free throw goes through the bottom of the net.
  • 1:56:42 (3:19 on game clock) Following a Shannon Scott jumper, Thad Matta calls his first timeout of the half; he has three remaining.
  • 1:57:47 Play resumes.
  • 1:57:57 (3:11 on game clock) Sam Thompson is fouled, and one.
  • 1:58:28 Thompson’s one shot is through the net.
  • 1:58:41 (3:05 on game clock) Blackmon is fouled.
  • 1:59:31 Blackmon’s second shot is through the net.
  • 2:00:32 (2:08 on game clock) Thompson is fouled, and one.
  • 2:01:08 (still 2:08) Thompson misses, D’Angelo Russell rebounds, is fouled, Nick Zeisloft fouls out.

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On This Season’s Gonzaga Dilemma

Posted by Bennet Hayes on January 9th, 2015

Two years ago, the debate raged. Did Gonzaga, the #1 team in both polls on Selection Sunday, really deserve a #1 seed? It was a question rarely faced by teams towering over the polls at such a late juncture, but the Zags’ 31-2 record didn’t impress everyone. Critics brought up the weak WCC. They pointed out an unflattering RPI ranking of #8. More anecdotally, they looked up and down the Gonzaga roster and asked — other than Kelly Olynyk — where all the pros were. The Zags claim to a #1 seed was as energized a debate as any on Selection Sunday in March 2013.

Mark Few, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Are Steering Gonzaga Towards Yet Another Dominant Regular Season Finish. Will The Zag's Disappointing 2013 NCAA Tournament Showing Impact This Team's Spot Within The Bracket?

Mark Few, Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Are Steering Gonzaga Towards Yet Another Dominant Regular Season Finish. Will The Zags’ Disappointing 2013 NCAA Tournament Showing Impact This Team’s Placement Within The Bracket?

That story’s ending shouldn’t have escaped memory yet (Cliff Notes: #1 seed granted, but Sweet Sixteen appearance sold separately) and it may have more damage to deliver the Bulldogs. This season boasts an equally dominant Gonzaga outfit and a similarly helpless WCC, which puts Mark Few’s team on a crash course for a familiar Selection Sunday predicament. After easily knocking off San Francisco on Thursday night, the 15-1 Bulldogs look as poised as ever to rip through a soft WCC and reach Selection Sunday with just one loss, an overtime defeat at Arizona (who is kind of good!). Early results indicate competition for the four #1 seeds is likely to be even fiercer this season than it was two years ago, but this Gonzaga group also looks to be stronger as well. Dominoes in the race for a #1 seed will be falling from now until March — in both Spokane and elsewhere — but round two of the great Gonzaga debate is coming. There’s no reason not to begin considering the question now: Will the kings of the WCC deserve to be on the bracket’s top line?

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Kentucky’s Perfect Dream: Is 40-0 Really Attainable?

Posted by Bennet Hayes on December 30th, 2014

On days like last Saturday, they tell you to throw out the records. Rivalry games like Kentucky-Louisville are supposed to occur in a vacuum, a place where bragging rights supersede any other consideration. At leas that’s how the thinking goes. It’s a quaint notion, indeed, but this latest installment of the Bluegrass State rivalry turned out to be all about the records. To be more specific, Kentucky’s record. With all due respect to Louisville’s previously unblemished loss tally – and even more respect to a stacked ACC – the Cardinals were never going to chase a perfect season, even if they had found a way to take down the Wildcats. But for Kentucky, with its stiffest test now in the rear-view and the zero in its loss column unchanged, dreams of an undefeated season have begun to transition out of fantasy and into reality. It was all anyone wanted to talk about after the game: Is 40-0 really possible?

The Young Wildcats Have Had Plenty Of Fun So Far; Are They Capable Of Crafting College Basketball's First Perfect Season Since 1976?

The Young Wildcats Have Had Plenty Of Fun So Far; Are They Capable Of Crafting College Basketball’s First Perfect Season Since 1976?

It is hard to look at the Kentucky schedule and find a single remaining game that it is likely to lose. This much is true. Using KenPom as our basis, the Wildcats are predicted to have at least an 89 percent chance of winning in 15 of their 18 SEC games. The three exceptions are visits to South Carolina on January 24 (84% win share), Florida on February 7 (77% win share), and Georgia on March 3 (84% win share). Florida’s best win this season is over Yale; the Gamecocks have beaten only one team in KenPom’s top 125 (Oklahoma State); and Georgia has two top-70 wins (Seton Hall and Colorado). Do we really expect any of these teams to prove capable of toppling one of the most dominant college basketball teams of the 21st century? I don’t think so.

Getting through the SEC unscathed – conference tournament included — is definitely possible for the ‘Cats. But is it likely? As difficult as it is to look down the schedule and find an SEC foe capable of beating them, winning 21 straight games against major conference teams is not as easy a task as many are suggesting. Even KenPom gives Kentucky just a 24.3 percent chance of ripping off the next 18 in a row. Avoiding a road trip to Arkansas on the schedule this year helps the cause, but won’t there be a night – most likely away from Rupp Arena — where the shots just aren’t falling for Coach Cal’s young bunch? They are shooting just 32.1 percent from three-point range and 66.2 percent from the line; imagining a 40-minute offensive drought is not too difficult, particularly in a foreign environment. Of course, you could use those same percentages to make a different but equally compelling point. Kentucky has been utterly dominant to this point, despite those inefficiencies — why even worry about them?

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Duke and Notre Dame: Why the Nation’s Top Two Offenses Are So Efficient

Posted by Henry Bushnell on December 19th, 2014

Basketball is a very complicated game. It is littered with intricacies, and like any sport, there are many different ways to be successful. Almost every weekend in college basketball, many of those ways are on display. But sometimes, in a sense, basketball can also be simple. We’re a little over a month into the college basketball season, and at the moment, there’s a bit of a surprise atop the raw offensive efficiency leaderboard: Notre Dame. Mike Brey’s team is averaging 130.5 points per 100 possessions, and, albeit against a fairly weak schedule, Notre Dame’s mark is a full 10 points higher than last year’s season leader, Creighton. Duke is right behind the Fighting Irish at 125.6 points per 100 possessions, good for second in the country. And since Brey spent eight years as an assistant on Mike Krzyzewski’s staff, it should come as no surprise that the two offenses, in some ways, are strikingly similar. But why exactly are they so efficient?

The ACC's Notre Dame and Duke Sport the Nation's Most Efficient Offenses (USA Today Images)

The ACC’s Notre Dame and Duke Sport the Nation’s Most Efficient Offenses (USA Today Images)

At a very rudimentary level, the efficiency of the two offenses comes down to three things:

  1. Talent. Great offenses can’t be great without great players.
  2. Scheme and spacing. Both teams space the floor impeccably, and their offenses are extremely well-structured.
  3. The offenses are well-structured because they are designed to get two things: shots at the rim and three-pointers. These are, fundamentally, the two best shots in basketball – the first one is self-explanatory, and threes are efficient because shooting 40 percent from three is equivalent to shooting 60 percent from two – and both offenses are tailored to get the ball to these areas of the court to players in positions to score.

The third point above gives us a great idea of why the offenses at Duke and Notre Dame have been so successful this season. One of the most important stats in basketball is effective field goal percentage. It measures how much value a team gets out of the shots it takes, regardless of what those shots are. And consistently, the teams with the best effective field goal percentages are the ones that, of course, have good shooters, but also the ones that take as many high-percentage shots as possible. Prior to Duke’s Thursday game against Connecticut, Notre Dame and Duke were the top two teams nationally in two-point field goal percentage and effective field goal percentage (in large part because they don’t shoot many mid-range jumpers). Their offenses are structured to allow players to take the right shots – to allow players to either get to the rim or free behind the arc.

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