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One of the most frequent criticisms of Coach K leveled by the knowledgeable Duke fan is that the bench, in general, is severely underutilized. This issue comes up almost every year, and in recent years has gotten even more attention due to the number of players that have left the program, many of whom were unhappy about lack of playing time (Boateng, Boykin, King, Czyz, etc.). During a recent telecast, Bob Knight, K’s mentor, said when asked at which point in the game he would start employing his bench: ” When I was up by 20 points.” In other words, “your starters are your starters for a reason.” And on his weekly TV show, after the NC Sate debacle, K talked specifically and pointedly about how a good defensive team is predicated on the idea that there can be “no weak links,” or the whole system becomes compromised. In other words, “If you don’t play consistently solid defense, you will be watching the game from the bench”.
Now, the idea that you have to play defense for K to get PT is not new. But fans get frustrated nonetheless, largely because they feel like game experience should be a bigger part of that learning process than Coach K seems to. Defense often presents a steep learning curve for underclassmen (especially one that emphasizes communication as much as Duke’s) and Coach K simply isn’t one for letting kids figure it out in in-game situations (and especially ACC in-game situations). The philosophy seems to be: You figure it out in practice, you execute it during the game (or you sit).
This brings me to the point of this little article, which is the complementary question to “Is the bench getting enough minutes?” That is to say, “Are the “Big Three” (Scheyer, Singler and Smith) getting too many minutes?” Of late, Duke has effectively gone to a 6-man rotation, especially in the second half of games. The Big Three plays just about every minute of the second half. A lot of fans are expressing concern that this will eventually wear them down and lead to another early tourney exit. Let’s look at the numbers.
As of today , Scheyer (36), Singler (35) and Smith (35) are 1, 3, and 4 in the ACC in minutes played. First, let’s look at some other similarly “trio reliant” ACC teams to see how their top 3 PPG scorers compare to the Devils in terms of minutes played:
- Wake - Smith (36); Aminu (31); Harris (29)
- Maryland - Vazquez (32); Milbourne (30); Mosley (29)
- Clemson - Booker (30); Stitt (28); Smith (25)
- Va Tech - Delaney(33); Hudson(33); Allen (27)
After looking at that list, it’s noteworthy that:
- Each of these trios account for at least 50% of their team’s points. Duke’s and Maryland’s account for over 60%.
- Duke’s big three are all strong candidates for first team All-ACC. Other All-ACC caliber players on this list - Booker, Vazquez, Smith, and Delaney - are logging similar minutes. Top-flight talent plays. A lot.
- Only 3 players on this list are post players, which is unsurprising given conditioning and mobility. But since Duke has no post player in their trio, it’s not entirely surprising that the average minutes played for the big three is a little higher than the rest.
This could simply mean that all these teams are playing their respective “Big Threes” too much. How many minutes are too many?? While that can’t really be assessed objectively, one can do a little trend hunting to see how Duke teams with similar profiles have performed at the end of the year. First, let’s say for the sake of argument that this year’s averages hold, and then look at previous Coach K teams that had 3 players averaging at least 34 minutes
- 1981-1982 - Taylor (38); Engelland (37); Emma (35). This team finished 10-17.
- 1999-2000 - Battier (36); Carrawell (36); JWill (34). A 6-man rotation and a Sweet 16 loss to Florida.
- 2004 - 2005 - JJ (37); Daniel Ewing (35); Shelden (34). Essentially a 6-man rotation, resulting in a VERY tired looking loss to Mich St. in the Sweet 16.
Well, that’s it kids. Not exactly reassuring, is it? Still, these comparisons only go skin deep, as the team compositions, conditioning, etc. are going to vary substantially. Still… Now, let’s look at teams that had at least 3 players with 32 minutes:
- 1980-1981 - Taylor (34); Dennard(34); Emma (33); Engelland(33). A 17-13 squad.
- 1983 - 1984 - Dawkins (38); Amaker (36); Alarie (33). Another 6-man rotation and a first round loss to Washington in the tournament.
- 1992-1993 - Hurley (37); Hill (32); Hill (32). A second round loss to Cal
- 1995-1996 - Capel (35); Collins (35); Price (32). First-round loss to Eastern Michigan.
- 2001-2002 - Duhon (35); JWill (34); Dunleavy (32). A 6-man rotation and a Sweet 16 loss to Indiana.
- 2005 - 2006 - Redick (37); Shelden (33); Paulus (32). A loss to LSU in the Sweet 16 (I was there…they were tired).
- 2006 - 2007 - McRoberts (35); Scheyer (34); Demarcus (32); Paulus (32). First round loss to VCU.
Needless to say, the kind of minutes distribution we are seeing this year is far from unprecedented. Unfortunately, it also does not have a real high rate of return as far as postseason results are concerned. For completeness, let’s look at some of the better performing Duke teams, to see how the minutes were distributed.
- 1985-1986 - Dawkins (33); Alarie (30); Amaker (30). 7-man rotation and a loss in the finals to Louisville.
- 1990 - 1991 - Hurley (35); Laettner (30); McCaffrey (25). 8-man rotation and a Championship.
- 1991-1992 - Hurley (34); Laettner (32); THill (31); Davis (31); GHill (30). 6-man rotation and a Championship.
- 1998-1999 - Langdon (31); Avery (31); Brand(30). 8-man rotation loss to Uconn in the Finals.
- 2000-2001 - Battier (35); JWill (32); Dunleavy (30). 6-man rotation and a Championship.
At the end of the day, what I am able to conclude from all this enumeration is that over 32 minutes per game played is not necessarily an impediment to success and a garauntee of late-season failure due to fatigue, as long as the guys who are playing all those minutes are really good. A short bench is also not necessarily an impediment to success, but if you have one, then the guys that are eating up the minutes better be really, really good. In brief, it seems like a “Big Four” or “Five” can navigate a postseason run, regardless of minutes or bench, but a “Big Three” just might not be enough without some kind of consistent contributions from a solid reserve core.