How Legitimate Is Duke as a National Championship Contender?

They may not be popular, but Duke's elite offense is key to their championship hopes.

Even though Kentucky is the clear front-runner to win the NCAA Tournament, there are still some really strong candidates to compete with them. And like it or not, Duke is one of those teams.

Let's look into why the Dukies have the potential to cut down the nets in Indianapolis, and how they stack up to previous Duke teams since the turn of the century, using our signature nERD metric, which measures the number of points we'd expect a team to win by against an average opponent on a neutral court.

Elite Offense

From an offensive standpoint, Duke ranks among the top offensive teams in the country, and their offensive percentile, per our numbers, of 99.8% is tied for best among remaining tournament teams. Coach K's squad averages 80.4 points per game (fifth nationally). The Blue Devils shoot the ball incredibly well, as their 50.7% field goal percentage is third overall. They also move the ball around well, ranking 12th in assists.

While the team plays an above average pace (62.6th percentile), the key to their offensive success is 6'11" freshman center and Wooden Award Finalist Jahlil Okafor. He has been everything he was expected to be and more for the Blue Devils.

Okafor (6.3 total Win Shares) leads the team in both scoring and rebounding at 18.1 points and 8.7 rebounds per game, respectively (23.8 points and 11.5 rebounds per 40 minutes). Okafor leads all players after the first three rounds of action (including the first four games) in player nERD with a total of 177.92 (teammate Quinn Cook is second at 172.5), according to numberFire Live statistics. He's second to only UCLA's hot shooting Bryce Alford in Player Rating at 352.32, meaning he's playing even better in the NCAA Tournament than his superb regular season.

Additionally, Okafor ranks second in Player Efficiency Rating (PER) at 32.1, behind only Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky (35.1), and his .677 effective field goal percentage is tops as well among players remaining in the NCAA Tournament.

What these advanced metrics demonstrate is just how positively and efficiently "Ja" rules the paint for the Blue Devils. Okafor's only weakness is free throw shooting (51.6%), which may be a late game strategy for Duke's remaining opponents.

If you try to double down in the post on Okafor, Duke has plenty of other options who can make you pay, as Cook, Justise Winslow, and Tyus Jones all average double figures. The team shoots 38.9% from downtown (25th nationally), and each of these three players excel with different aspects on offense.

Cook is the marksman, shooting 40.7% from three, attempting seven threes per game. And he has the fifth best Offensive Rating among NCAA Tournament players (130.9). Jones is the point guard who dishes out 5.8 assists per game while being one of the best free throw shooters in the country (88.4%). Winslow does all the little things and rebounds very well for his 6'6" frame (6.3 rebounds per game).

Where's the Defense?

According to, Duke has the 46th ranked Adjusted Defensive Rating. In individual categories, the Blue Devils don't stand out anywhere defensively in allowing 64.8 points per game. The best thing they do is play good team defense and rebound, while not fouling much. The team finished 21st in fewest free throw attempts allowed. However, they don't block shots at a rampant pace or cause a bevy of turnovers.

In spite of Jones being one of the best free throw shooters in the country, Okafor and Winslow bring the team down to a 68.9% free-throw percentage (189th overall). This could loom large in tight games.

Lastly, Duke doesn't play a large rotation of players. Basically, they have a seven-man rotation that gets considerably weaker if their starters get into foul trouble or take a blow.

Historical Comparison

We know that, if Duke is going to keep advancing in the NCAA Tournament, their offense will be key to that success. Now let's look at how this 2015 Duke team stacks up to previous Duke teams since 2000 in terms of our signature nERD metric.

Remember, nERD basically measures how a team would be expected to perform on a neutral court against another team. For instance, the current Duke team has a nERD of 18.76, which would give them a 0.77-point advantage if they played Gonzaga (nERD of 17.99).

200125.10Won National Championship over Arizona 82-72
200222.63Lost to Indiana 74-73 in Sweet 16
200421.12Lost to UConn 79-78 in Final Four
201020.92Won National Championship over Butler 61-59
200019.74Lost to Florida 87-78 in Sweet 16
201119.47Lost to Arizona 93-77 in Sweet 16
200618.60Lost to LSU 72-64 in Sweet 16
200518.54Lost to Michigan State 78-68 in Sweet 16
200817.78Lost to West Virginia 73-67 in 2nd Round
201317.63Lost to Louisville 85-63 in Elite Eight
200916.78Lost to Villanova 77-54 in Sweet 16
200315.98Lost to Kansas 69-65 in Sweet 16
201415.92Lost to Mercer 78-71 in 1st Round
200715.04Lost to VCU 79-77 in 1st Round
201213.80Lost to Lehigh 75-70 in 1st Round

Perhaps the recency of the I Hate Christian Laettner 30 for 30 on ESPN makes it seem like Duke has made a bunch of Final Fours recently. However, that's not the case (relative to perception, of course). Since 2000, the Dukies have been to three Final Fours, winning two National Championships in that stretch. With their current nERD total, if history repeated itself, Coach K's squad would not get any further than an Elite Eight matchup against either Gonzaga or UCLA.

Looking Ahead

On Friday night, the 1-seeded Blue Devils play a very tough Utah Utes squad -- a team our metrics really like on both ends of the court. Both Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright present difficult matchups for Duke, which should make for a very interesting game. Per numberFire Live, Duke has a 55% chance of beating Utah, which is one of the closest expected outcomes among Sweet 16 games.

Another fun tool to play with is our March Madness Game Simulator, which projects Duke to win 69.38 to 66.09 versus the Utes. However, three of the five strongest predictor games have the Utes winning (and even by double digits).

If Duke were to meet the very talented 2-seeded Gonzaga in the Elite Eight, our simulator predicts Duke to prevail 72.16 to 70.63, although, once again, Duke is on the losing end of three of the five predictor games.

If Duke gets it to the finals, the simulator isn't high on them beating the power teams from the other side of the bracket, too.

So for the Blue Devils, it seems like winning it all based on our algorithms will be unlikely, even with an elite offense. That is unless they get lucky on the other side of the bracket, and upsets result in them facing a Butler-type team like they did in winning their last championship.