It doesn’t take an expert to tell you that the Duquesne’s main problem last season was on defense. Whether you’re looking at the statistics or just based on the eyeball test the Dukes really struggled to defend especially on the perimeter. Their midseason adjustment to go from a man-to-man to the 2-3 zone fared decently at home, but mostly got torched on the road as opponents could fairly easily get uncontested corner threes. It’s the most difficult shot to make, but if you allow anyone the level of comfort that the Dukes did in their opponents’ home gym, they’re going to knock them down.
I’ve opined a number of times on social media that if the Dukes can play just average defense, they’d be a very difficult opponent. After all, they finished the regular season with a 107.1 points per 100 possessions (#72) on offense according to KenPom. Problem is, they countered it with one of the worst defenses in the country (110.8 per 100, ranked #322) giving them a combined -3 points per 100 possessions. Only one team among the thirty worst defenses finished in the top 200 in terms of RPI, Louisiana-Lafayette at 195. However, their offense was considerable better than the Dukes coming in at #41 in the country.
The good news is that the Dukes aren’t likely to do much worse, but the bad news is that they’d need to improve by 7.5 points per 100 possessions just to get to the average defensive mark that I suggested they need to reach to be mediocre. Only forty-two teams in the country improved that much. The question that remains is would that even be enough?
When I look at the rest of the Atlantic 10 in terms of Kenpom efficiency plus / minus at the end of the season, the league stratifies into the same tiers as it did in terms of the final standings. The NCAA teams managed a minimum of +12.6. The NIT teams ranged from +11.2 to +8.9. The teams that finished with better than .500 records all had a positive ratio as well, but were at most +5. If you look at the above chart, the Dukes with average defense would have fallen in the middle of that group that posted winning records if the offense remained unchanged.
In the end, it would be considerably more realistic for the Dukes’ overall team performance to improve if the offense at least gets marginally better as well. For an explanation of the above chart, please read the caption, but it shows just how few teams make the kind of defensive improvements the Dukes would need to reach the NIT if the offense remains the same. Only Cornell improved enough on defense to where the Dukes could get themselves into the NCAA conversation without any change in offensive efficiency, while only twelve teams improved as much as the Dukes would need to improve to get into the NIT. If you add three points per 100 possessions on offense, a feat 53 teams accomplished last year, their still slim chances to make the NIT get considerably better. By improving on offense by four points per 100 possessions, the Dukes wouldn’t have to improve much on defense — just 1.3 points per 100 fewer to have a season comparable to UMass. To make big gains this season, it’s likely the Dukes will need to improve at both ends although they probably don’t need more than modest offensive gains.
Of the teams that did improve considerably on defense, most had rosters composed similarly to Duquesne’s. Of the twenty-five teams who saw the greatest defensive improvements, thirteen had a points per 100 possessions allowed above 110. Of the ten schools that saw the greatest improvement, but also did not undergo a coaching change, most sported veteran starting lineups. They averaged 3.5 upperclassmen starters including 2.2 seniors. Only three freshman started for teams that saw considerable improvements. In other words, teams that got considerably better on defense got older. Most did it better with the players they had getting better. As it stands, the Dukes look to have a lineup with three seniors and two juniors.
The Dukes could improve their overall record with more efficient defense alone, but it’s difficult to believe they can improve enough to compete for anything more than a CBI berth unless they also score more. While it’s already good, the offense will need to get better for the program to take a huge step. The good news is that they should be able to enter the season with the same identity they closed the last with. They had a guard-oriented team this year and they should have a guard-oriented team next year. We also saw Micah Mason begin to emerge as a potential all-conference player. In the end, they have the biggest window to improve on defense, but better offense will make the amount that they need to improve on defense all the more attainable.