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Duke, Maryland and the deciding power of the three

Maryland upset Duke on Friday night in a game where the Blue Devils simply could not shoot.

Coach K isn't used to his team missing so many shots.
Coach K isn't used to his team missing so many shots.

With a little more than 13 minutes remaining, Duke's Mason Plumlee stepped to the free throw line and calmly hit the pair. The Blue Devils were on a bit of a run -- Plumlee's free throws had come after five straight points by Ryan Kelly -- and the score was now 47-46, Maryland. It would never get any closer than that, as Mike Krzyzewski's team would only score six points over the next seven minutes, missing eight jump shots as the Terrapins pulled ahead by 13.

While it would be wrong to call the Duke loss to Maryland shocking, whenever a likely No. 1 seed loses on a neutral court to a bubble team, the result should be considered a surprise. So how did it happen? Whenever a surprising outcome occurs in a basketball game, three point shooting is the first place to look for answers.

To cite one example, in retrospect no game outcome this season seems as strange as Illinois' early December road win against Gonzaga. It is a game that is the only real blemish on the Zag's 30-2 record -- it just seems odd that a team as good as Gonzaga could lose by 11 points at home to the Illini. But the explaination of that game is remarkably simple; Illinois bombed away from long distance, hitting 11-26 from three point range, and scored 1.27 points per possession, while an otherwise good offensive showing from Gonzaga was spoiled by 5-18 shooting from downtown.

Which brings us to the Duke / Maryland contest. Duke was 4-25 on three point shots while Maryland was 8-20. Had the Blue devils only managed a pedestrian 32 percent shooting percentage from long distance -- well below their season average of 41 percent -- they would have scored 12 additional points, and the game might have played out differently.

By any measure the Duke Blue Devils are among the best shooting teams in the nation, hitting over 40 percent of their threes and connecting on 37 percent of their two point jump shots (Duke Hoop-Math). When combined with the fact that the Coach K's team hits 67 percent of their attempts at the rim, it is easy to see how Duke has an effective field goal percentage that ranks in the top 20 nationally.

But even good shooters can have a bad day. For Duke, most of their shooters seriously struggled Friday night. Ryan Kelly went 0-6 from three point range and 0-2 on two point jump shots. Seth Curry went 2-7 from downtown, while Tyler Thornton and Quinn Cook combined to go 2-9 from long range. Only Rasheed Sulaimon and Mason Plumlee were effective scoring the ball for the Blue Devils, and Friday night that just wasn't enough.

The Blue Devils are fond of getting off quick three point looks in transition, and these shots have worked well for them all season long. 40 percent of Duke shots within the first ten seconds after rebounding an opponent miss are threes, and these shots have fallen 38 percent of the time this year. Against Maryland, Duke missed every one of these quick strike threes.

Over the season, the Blue Devil's have also been good at counter-punching in transition after an opponent score, attempting 47 percent of their shots from long distance within the first ten seconds after an opposing basket, and connecting on these shots 44 percent of the time. Against the Terrapins, Duke pushed these counter attacks hard, attacking quickly after an opponent score nearly twice as frequently as they normally do, with 80 percent of these quick looks coming from beyond the arc. Duke only connected on a quarter of their threes in these situations.

At the other end of the floor, threes were working much better for Maryland. Mark Turgeon's team isn't known for its long range shooting. Over the season Maryland has only attempted 30 percent of its field goal attempts from three point range, and has only hit on 33 percent of these attempts. More than 260 Division I teams score a higher percentage of their points from beyond the arc than do the Terrapins. But of course Maryland bombed away successfully against Duke, taking 39 percent of their shots from three point range, and connecting on 40 percent of these shots.

Making this all even more surprising, Duke is usually outstanding when it comes to running opponents off the three point line. This season only 27 percent of the Blue Devil's opponents' shots have come from three point range. Of course, it can be hard to guard the three point line when Dez Wells is doing whatever he wants -- attacking the rim and getting to the line.

If nothing else, the Duke/Maryland game shows just how difficult it can be to predict individual game outcomes. And the prediction becomes even more difficult when so much of the game result is riding on the outcome of a handful of 20 foot shots.

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