— As everyone expected back in the preseason, the result of North Carolina’s Wednesday visit to Duke will depend heavily on a matchup between a sensational freshman point guard and his counterpart who sports some not-so-sensational numbers.
Just not the players we thought.
With Kyrie Irving’s toe injury and Larry Drew’s departure from UNC, roles have reversed. It’s Carolina’s Kendall Marshall playing the part of the rising star, while Duke’s Tyler Thornton (and his nearly-team-low 90.7 offensive rating) represents the perhaps-underachieving foil. This isn’t the first time these two have clashed, as both played high school and AAU ball in the Washington, D.C. area. From this interview it appears that Marshall’s teams won 3 of their 5 meetings. A good omen for the Tar Heels?
Duke may be wishing this game had been played back in November, as the two teams have been on opposite tracks since then.
To illustrate this, I split the season into three sections, with the dividing lines being Irving’s injury and Marshall’s promotion to starting point guard. Reversing the method that Pomeroy uses to create his efficiency ratings, I used the raw game results and the opponent’s ratings to calculate an adjusted game-specific rating for the teams in each game they played. I then averaged those ratings, and compared them to the current rankings to find where they would rank if they played that well all year.
Check out how the season has progressed:
That’s right, since Marshall took over the starting job for UNC, they’ve played like the best team in the country. Sure, it’s only 5 games, but it’s still impressive.
(It should be noted that the competition has been merely OK, not great, in those five games.)
What changed lately, besides Marshall’s ascension? Harrison Barnes’s stats look quite different. Barnes has been taking more shots and making them at a higher rate since Marshall took over, but a couple more trends are present. Fewer assists, and fewer of almost every defensive stat:
It’s almost as if Roy Williams told Barnes to stop worrying so much about being a good teammate, and just go get his. Of course, another explanation is that Marshall’s play has freed Barnes from the burden of being “the man,” and that reduced pressure has resulted in better shooting.
On the other side of the ball, what has caused Duke’s decline (not that a drop down to No. 4 is something to be too distressed about)? Well, the obvious answer is the absence of Irving. But what exactly has changed since his departure?
Here are Duke’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiencies since Irving went down, plus their Four Factors numbers:
You can see that, surprisingly, the Blue Devils may actually be playing slightly better on offense without Irving. Their offensive rebounds are up and their turnovers are down — as good as Irving was, he did turn the ball over more than any Duke guard besides Thornton. And while their shooting has suffered, the decline has come against better competition, which means their adjusted efficiency has remained high.
The bigger change seems to have come on the defensive end, and specifically in the rate of turnovers forced.
It may not be a coincidence that Irving has (or had) the second highest steal percentage on the team, behind only Seth Curry. On possessions where they don’t turn it over, teams are scoring against the Devils at about the same rate now as they were before Irving’s injury. But getting those extra effective possessions can be immensely valuable. Just ask Wisconsin. They have the most efficient offense in the country, and pretty much the only thing they excel at is holding onto the ball. Or, imagine if Duke’s final opponent from last season had just one extra chance to score.
So, what’s the take away here? Duke’s been having a bit of trouble forcing turnovers. And the Tar Heels, especially Harrison Barnes, have been playing out of their minds since Kendall Marshall took over at point guard.
But that new car smell has to fade away some time, and Cameron Indoor seems a pretty reasonable place for that to happen. The only thing that would truly surprise me tomorrow is UNC strolling into Duke’s house and laying down the law.
Any other result is in play. After all, it’s rivalry week.