Welcome to our Duke vs Ohio State preview post. In our eyes, Duke was the most under-seeded team in this tournament, so much like Maryland / Albany, we are getting a matchup here that is worthy of championship weekend. This game has an element of civilizational conflict to it.
The Big Ten had a great regular season, a slew of seeded teams, and high hopes for the future. The ACC had two seeded teams, but scraped a fourth team into the tournament when UNC won the conference tournament (and were subsequently selected as an at-large team). There were whispers of a changing of the guard in college lacrosse. And once Michigan gets a new head coach…
The actual games have played out quite differently. Penn State got bounced by Towson. Duke rocked seeded Big Ten team, Johns Hopkins. Carolina lost a nail biter to Albany (our #1 team overall), but the other three ACC teams all advanced to the 2nd round. As in your classic best of three, this game has the feel of a tie-breaker. Was the Big Ten regular season a house of cards, or do their top teams really have what it takes to challenge the ACC’s best?
The tale of the tape is thus.
Duke enters with the #7 offensive in terms of efficiency. They have the #5 defense by that same metric. And they’ve been a middling team in terms of pace (34th in D1). The Blue Devils come in with the 14th deepest roster in D1 and they are also 14th (coincidentally) in time of possession.
Ohio State brings the 22nd ranked offense and pairs that with the 16th ranked defense. They’ve been even slower in attacking than the Blue Devils, checking as the 23rd slowest team in D1. The Bucks have the 35th deepest roster in D1 and are ranked 66th in time of possession with 25 and a half minutes per game.
Theatrics aside, this is still just a lacrosse game. Our Lax-ELO model thinks that Duke has a 61% chance of beating the Buckeyes and advancing to championship weekend. The most recent ELO table shows Duke as the 3rd strongest team in D1 (Lax-ELO: 1784). Ohio State comes in at #7 (Lax-ELO: 1703).
But as we’ve said before, this is just the surface view. And ELO doesn’t know the ins and outs of Duke or Ohio State. It’s benefit is it’s simplicity. But because ELO is so simplistic, we need to color in the lines to understand the things that could really decide this game.
Bring your Transition Defense
Both of these teams have some interesting trends relating to transition defense that are worth examining. If either team is able to take advantage and tally some quick strike goals, that could tip the balance one way or the other.
For Duke, the chart below shows a big disparity in quick offense between wins and losses. In their wins, Duke’s most common possession length is less than 20 seconds; by a lot. To put that in perspective, the average D1 team has 25% of their possessions last less than 20 seconds. Duke is right in line with that during wins. During losses, it’s about half. A Duke team that is forced to be patient on offense is not a Duke team that wins.
Watching the demolition of Hopkins last week, you might be inclined to think that a longer Duke possession just means more time for Justin Guterding to find an open teammate on the crease with a pinpoint pass for an easy goal. Folks, that game was an anomaly.
If Ohio State is able to force Duke into more 40 to 60 s possessions, they’ve got a much better chance of heading to Boston. And fortunately, the Buckeyes do have some track record of slowing teams down. As you can see in the chart below, in 8 of their games, they’ve forced teams to play more than 5 seconds slower than their season average.
I say that they have “some” track record because it’s not been a consistent skill. Still, Ohio State overall has been more likely to slow teams than let them run all over them. Keep a close eye on whether Duke is getting a lot of run out quick possessions. If they do, the Ohio State offense is going to have to make up the difference.
If Ohio State can pick their spots, they can win early too
And if they do need to make up the difference, the same early possession opportunities could be where they do it. The charts below tell the story of Duke wins vs Duke losses.
Whether Duke wins or loses, their defense faces more or less the same distribution of possessions by time bucket. It’s not as if teams that beat Duke play much faster than those that don’t. It’s pretty consistent.
The big difference comes when you look at how effective teams are in ultra-fast possessions (less than 20 s). In Duke losses, their defense has allowed a 40% efficiency rate to opponents when the possession lasts less than 20 seconds. In wins, that figure is 20%. So teams generally have about the same number of quick possessions, but the teams that beat Duke convert those at a much higher rate.
This suggests that it’s less a function of the defense and more a function of the attack. If it were a glaring defensive issue, you might expect to see more possessions being used this way. Maybe Duke has some unique transition defense deficiency that is easy to exploit. Something along the lines of poor communication or not being fully set or being caught in a counterattack.
But teams aren’t sensing some deficiency and exploiting it because again, we’d see more possessions being used in the early stages of the clock. So perhaps this is just a function of the offenses that have beaten Duke are good at capitalizing on opportunities. I have not scouted Denver, Notre Dame, Air Force, or Syracuse in enough detail to know what it was that they did in these games. But the signs point to solid offensive execution in early possession opportunities.
Ohio State will need to be solid in their execution when they have chances early in a possession. Whether they cash in their quick offense will be a bellweather in this one.
What happens after Withers wins will be watched
Lots of w’s there, huh? We’ve mentioned this before, but Ohio State’s offense is ok. Not great (they are ranked 22nd overall). But after a face off win, they are transformed into the #7 offense in the country.
Overall, they score on 29% of their offensive possessions. For possessions that start with a face off win, that number is 38%. When people talk about make-it-take-it lacrosse, they are talking about Jake Withers and the Ohio State offense, 2017 vintage.
But they don’t use face off dominance to rack up big time of possession advantages. In fact, they have possessed the ball less than all by 4 other D1 teams (Notre Dame is in that group). So the advantage they take from face offs is not possession. For whatever reason, they’ve been able to convert those face off wins into goals at an impressive rate.
Now this is going to be a big part of any Ohio State preview, but it takes on added importance against Duke because their top 5 defense is magically transformed into a more pedestrian 23rd on possessions that start with the Blue Devils losing a faceoff.
Obviously, this is something that the Duke defense has weathered to get to this point, but it’s worth noting that in their 13 victories, they’ve averaged 57% at x. In 4 losses, they’ve only been 53%. And that includes an Air Force game that they lost despite winning 71% of the face offs.
So it’s been a bit of a bug-a-boo for Duke in the games that they’ve lost. And here they are going up against a team in Ohio State that seems uniquely positioned to take advantage of this crack in the foundation of the Duke offense.
Those Kyle Rowe vs Jake Withers battles just took on a whole different level of importance.