Belmont is good. This is no secret. In years past, Duke opening it’s season by hosting Belmont wouldn’t be a big deal: just another ceremonial squashing of a mid-major to inaugurate the season. But this year, Belmont seems to be designed explicitly for the sole purpose of shocking the Blue Devils. Duke is a good team and Mike Krzyzewski didn’t become the legendary Coach K by overlooking opponents. Duke will be ready to deal with Belmont trying to leverage their strengths against Duke’s weaknesses. That said, what exactly are Belmont’s strengths?
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The Bruins squad is deep. Last year, they played eleven men for more than ten minutes a game. None of their players averaged more than twenty-five minutes a game. This depth is a necessary part of the Bruin’s clever, but physically taxing, pressure defensive scheme. This team plays fast (though not faster than Duke did last season) and tries to force turnovers with tough man to man pressure and trapping schemes. Last year, the Bruins were fairly successful, forcing turnovers on a remarkable 27.5% of defensive possessions, good for second best in the entire nation. Kerron Johnson actually managed to lead the nation in steal percentage, taking away the ball on 6.3% of posessions. No one in the nation even really came that close to matching that per-possession mark. Combine that with an old-school protect the paint mentality and the Bruins managed to successfully limit opponents field goal percentage (though admittedly at the expense of fouling a lot). Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency statistics rated the Bruins as the twenty-third best defense in the country, which is not too shabby. With the relatively inexperienced Duke backcourt, it seems very possible that Belmont should be able to have some success in forcing turnovers.
On offense, the Bruins could take down Goliath with the same tactic that countless mid-majors use: shooting a ton of threes. Belmont, last year, has no problem leaning on the three: 42.3% of all of the Bruins field goals came from behind the arc. Only seventeen schools in Division I shot more from three. Not only does the team take a lot of threes, but they make a lot. As a team, they made 37.8% of their three-point attempts, 33rd best in the nation. Surprisingly, the team rated even better on two-pointers, making 52.2%, the 19th best in the nation. While many teams pick their spots when they shoot threes, going to the long ball relatively sparingly, Belmont moves in the opposite direction, picking their spots on inside shots and only shooting high percentage shots created from keen ball movement. While the Bruins will certainly miss senior Jordan Campbell and his insane 45.8% three-point shooting, Belmont is well-positioned to maintain last year’s highly successful attack.
The irony of Belmont’s strengths is that they play into areas that are usually Duke’s strengths. The recent hallmarks of a Blue Devil team are an experienced back court that can apply excellent perimeter pressure and rarely turns the ball over on offense. With this year’s personnel, it’s unclear if Duke will be able to match previous year’s marks in this era. Seth Curry, Andre Dawkins, and Austin Rivers are all skilled players, but their ability to play effective perimeter defense is largely unproven. In this year’s exhibitions, Duke had a hard time stopping dribble penetration and often found it’s guards getting beat by opponents. While Curry and Dawkins had relatively low turnover rates this year, it’s unclear if they will be able to maintain these rates when both players will be handling the ball more an expected to create their own shots.
Still, despite Belmont’s seeming match-up advantages, Duke still has what might be an effective trump card: size. Ryan Kelly, Miles Plumlee, and Mason Plumlee are big guys that are (usually) talented interior defenders. While Belmont goes inside less than most teams, it’s still an important part of their offensive game plan. If their is one statistic that bodes well for the Blue Devils, it’s that last year Belmont got blocked on 13.0% of all their offensive possessions, the third worst mark in all of college basketball. Mason Plumlee and Kelly both shared a real flair for blocking shots last year and if they get the chance, they have the potential to make things really miserable for Belmont whenever they look to score inside.
Still, it’s easy to see that Belmont has all of the pieces to pull off an upset. Will they? It’s the home opener for Duke. The home opener in a surely loud and rocking Cameron Indoor. If Belmont managed to catch Duke somewhat off-guard, maybe in the middle of the season or after another tough opponent, I’d like their chances better. I don’t think they pull it off tonight, but, at least on paper, the Bruins certainly look capable of shocking Duke.