Buckeye Basketball Breakdown: Exhaustion

Written December 8th, 2011 by Eric

Mike Krzyzewski signals his team against the Buckeyes.

After the November 29th game against the Buckeyes, Duke Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski discussed the reasons he believed lead to his team losing the game.

“I thought Ohio State played a great game against us. They were a fresher team; I thought our team played tired. They are very athletic, together and they played with a great verve. Obviously they are deserving of the win, but they were a lot fresher than we were. We could never get into the ballgame.”

So Krzyzewski believes that his team was tired after their three games in as many days against Tennessee, Michigan, and Kansas last week in the Maui Invitational.  That’s certainly possible considering the quality of the teams, the rate they played the games, and the chance of jet lag.

But is there any way we could tell for certain if they actually were suffering from exhaustion?  You’re probably thinking I wouldn’t write this article unless there was, and you would be entirely correct.

There are three types of exhaustion that are common in college athletics: Physical, Mental, and Emotional.  Physical is obvious – the sheer muscular failure that comes from overexertion.  Mental and emotional are more of an enigma, but are just as easily seen in the results on the court.  Overcoming these are one of the big tasks for any team trying to make a deep tournament run in March.

There are several different places to look for signs of exhaustion in a team.  In some cases, a look at the stats can get the job done.  One must keep in mind while analyzing stats for signs of wear that strong defensive play makes a difference as well.  I will do the best I can to point out how to tell if the issue is with a strong defense as opposed to a tired team.

It’s important to avoid analyzing a game without having watched it.  Sometimes you can get away with it, particularly if the story bears out obviously in the stats (and this is what Ken Pomeroy is busy trying to turn into a science), but it’s always better to observe then to analyze statistically for signs like this.


Physical exhaustion is a case where the symptoms are nearly immediately obvious to anyone watching.  Just about anybody can tell when a team is physically tired, but here are some of the obvious, and not so obvious, signs.

You're not going to find a prettier shot form than William Buford's.

Poor Shooting

Basketball teams often practice their shooting at the end of their practice sessions.  This is because exhaustion tends to lead people to reflexively “cheat” on their fundamentals or fall back on older, more engrained, bad habits.  Therefore, coaches force players to learn to shoot while tired, engraining good habits during the mental state of least control.

The typical method of shooting a basketball is the “jump shot”, so named because the players jump before releasing the ball.  The reason for this is that the jump imparts upward momentum on the ball.  The player’s release (the actual shot) imparts momentum mostly towards the basket – so a player can better control the range of the shot.  Players with really pretty jump shots (and high shooting percentages) often have fantastic fundamental shooting form.  I recommend you watch Buford’s shot very closely as he is a nearly perfect example of a jump shot.

Failing to jump into a shot properly can be a serious problem.  By getting a nice arc on the ball you are functionally increasing the area of the basket available for your shot to land.  If your shot is overly flat, it is presented a much narrower oval through which to pass for the score.  Therefore, the more arc you get on your shot the more likely the ball will make it through the hoop.

When a player is tired he can’t often get the proper jump height.  Even though practice is supposed to make it a natural default reaction, there eventually comes a time when the muscles simply won’t give the maximum response.  No amount of training can overcome that.

Poor Transition Basketball

A team that is physically exhausted prefers a slower game of basketball.  Obviously the speed of a basketball game depends on how often the teams are in their half-court offense – the more frequently you’re setting up the half court, the slower the game.  If, however, the tempo of the game is very high, the players will more frequently be sprinting back and forth down the court.

The extreme of the former is a Wisconsin style, whereas the extreme of the latter is someone like VMI.

But regardless of how a team likes to play the game, fast breaks are still a factor.  This most frequently occurs after a steal.  Team A steals the ball and blitzes down the court as quickly as possible, hoping to outrace Team B’s defense to the basket.

There are two ways that exhaustion can appear here.  The first is if Team A steals the ball, but simply doesn’t have much left in the tanks.  Obviously they’ll slow the pace, perhaps avoid even breaking out into a run, so that they don’t overexert themselves.  The second is if Team B is gassed they’ll refuse to run the court, and will give up on the play very quickly, granting Team A the easy layup or dunk.

Keep in mind you can’t take one play as an indication of this.  Occasionally a steal occurs in such a way that Team B immediately realizes they have no chance at all of catching up.  They’ll hang back and allow the pass – often so as to not commit a silly foul and exacerbate the problem.  The same is on offense, as occasionally a team will intentionally slow things down rather than execute a fast break – particularly late in games if they want to run clock, or if the coaching staff wants to set up something specific.


Good offense and defense in basketball requires constant effort, both mental and physical.  On defense, a tired team will often lag, giving up easily and allowing cheap baskets and clear passing lanes.  On offense the team will fail to execute their motion offense, obvious if a pass is placed at a spot that a player hasn’t reached yet.  They may also fail to move at all, or make bad decisions because they’re not focused on ball control or shot selection.


Mental exhaustion manifests itself in ways that are similar to physical exhaustion.  When a player is mentally tired, he no longer focuses on the task at hand.  He will make mistakes that he normally wouldn’t otherwise; perhaps attempting to thread the ball to a spot that isn’t available, forgetting which foot was his pivot, not getting to the right spot on defense, or not reading the offensive player correctly.

A great way to tell if a team is mentally tired is to compare the first and second halves of a game.  If a team makes a remarkable improvement in their play from half to half, they very likely had an initially poor gameplan that needed adjustment.  If the team doesn’t improve, or even gets worse, that could be a sign that the coaching staff failed to get through to the players.  A mentally tired team is not capable of making appropriate adjustments, and instead falls back on ingrained habits.

Don’t forget, though, that this depends on the opponent as well.  If the opponent dramatically improves with their adjustments, then the team in question will obviously look worse.


Emotional exhaustion is a phenomenon that seems to be isolated to the collegiate sports ranks.  Occasionally you’ll see a team come out with absolutely no passion or fire in their play.  In such cases, sometimes the team will recover and improve later in the game, but often the team remains drained.  This form of exhaustion most often occurs after big wins, and usually affects younger teams more frequently than more experienced teams.

This usually doesn’t affect teams when they have to play a big game, since players can often “get up” for a big game.  Easy games following big games – your prototypical “trap” game – is a more likely candidate for problems, as the players don’t feel like they need to get invested.

How this Applies to Duke

Let’s now attempt to analyze whether or not Duke was actually tired in their game against the buckeyes, point by point.


Here’s the half by half score breakdown for the game between the Buckeyes and the Blue Devils.

Team 1 2 F
#4 DUKE 28 35 63
#2 OSU 47 38 85

Duke clearly improved in the second half, both offensively and defensively.  Though they still lost the second half, and you can argue that perhaps the Buckeyes took their foot off the pedal late in the game with their substitutions; this is still an indication that Duke was mentally capable of being in the game.

It’s actually worth pointing out on the substitution front – OSU played 6 guys off the bench, but 3 of them saw only 1 minute, and Scott saw only 2.  Of those 4, only 2 points were scored, and the total bench scored only 6.  It seems more likely that the bench did not produce as well against Duke than the starters did, than anything to do with OSU backing off of the Blue Devils.  If the Buckeyes had actually let up, they most likely would have lost the second half and allowed the gap to close.  Credit goes to Duke for putting a stop to some of the things the Buckeyes wanted to do.

In terms of turnovers, Duke only committed 12 turnovers to Ohio State’s 10.  Neither is a particularly egregious quantity of turnovers (anything 15 or more is high, 7 or less is low).  It was a relatively average game mentally for the Blue Devils.  In fact, they forced Aaron Craft into 4 turnovers for the game – which for him is pretty high.  The mental effort to attempt to control the turnover battle was clearly there.


There’s an argument to be made here.  Looking at the score breakdown above it seems like the Blue Devils came out slow and sloppy against the Buckeyes.  Perhaps there was a little bit of a hangover from their game against the Jayhawks to win the Maui Invitational.

This was not, however, the only time that Duke came into a game slow before improving in the second half.  In their game against Davidson on November 18th, the Dookies scored only 34 points (to Davidson’s 35) in the first half before putting up 48 (to Davidson’s 34) in the second.  That game came only three days after the Blue Devils defeated Michigan State 74-69.  Perhaps this is an indication that Duke has issues getting up for games after wins over “traditionally powerful” teams.



Tough defense makes a big difference.

Looking at Duke’s shooting statistics they shot 47.3% (26-55) from the floor as a team against the Buckeyes.  Comparing this to the other games Duke has played to date, which include games against Michigan State, Kansas, Michigan, and Tennessee, they are averaging 48.8% from the floor overall with about a 4% fluctuation in shooting percentage game to game.  This suggests that the Blue Devils did not shot particularly poorly from the floor against the Buckeyes.  In fact, any difference between their percentage against the Buckeyes and their average can entirely be ascribed to statistical fluctuation.

Interestingly, though, the Buckeyes held the Blue Devils to a season low of 20% shooting beyond the arc.  That is certainly well outside of Duke’s average of 43.2% and might be a sign of tired legs.  But it could be an indication of other issues as well.

If ever there was a game for the Blue Devils to be legitimately tired it would be their matchup against Kansas, which was the third of three straight games in the Maui Invitational.  The Blue Devils shot a respectable, but lower, 39.3% from the floor.  That is a significant deviation from their average.  If you look at their three point shooting against the Jayhawks, the Blue Devils hit 44% of their shots from beyond the arc – not a statistically significant deviation from their 43.2% season average.

These two stats can easily be explained away by defensive effort of the other team.  The Kansas Jayhawks are a tough inside defensive team, allowing opposing teams to shoot only 38% from the floor.  Duke took advantage of this, shooting a season high 25 three pointers and connecting on 11 and completely bypassing Kansas’s advantage inside.  Against the Buckeyes, however, the Blue Devils faced a tough outside defensive effort.  While they were able to get inside the lane, and were able to score around average in the paint, they seriously struggled from beyond the arc.  Ultimately, the Blue Devils shot only 15 three pointers against the Buckeyes, their 2nd lowest of the season, not only because the shots weren’t falling, but because the defense was simply too tough outside.

Transition Basketball:

One stat that is not well kept in Basketball is the points scored off turnovers during the course of a game.  Both Ohio State and Duke managed to collect 4 steals each, and the turnover numbers were fairly even as mentioned earlier.  We have to think back to the game (or, better yet, rewatch the game) and analyze the fast break opportunities for each team.

Duke did not manage too many fast break opportunities, partially due to their steals being in the lane under their own basket, with most of the Buckeye’s in front of them on their path to the basket.  However, most of OSU’s steals were in the backcourt and allowed the Bucks to run the court a little.  Duke contested all of OSU’s fast break opportunities and did not let them have an easy bucket in transition.  No sign of exhaustion there.


Again, like the transition basketball point, we need to reanalyze the game to look for cases of Duke players taking plays off, or not hustling to the ball, or failing to get into proper defensive position.

To be honest, and I’m more than willing to be corrected on this point if someone has video evidence of it, Duke looked to be on their game all night long.  They were getting into position, making defensive plays, moving the ball, moving off the ball, and just generally being the Duke team we all know and love.

Conclusively, I believe that Mike Krzyzewski’s claim about his team being tired was an incorrect evaluation.  While his team shot poorly from long range, it’s more likely that it was due to Ohio State being a better perimeter defensive team than we’ve given them credit for thus far this season.  None of the other indicators for a tired team were present for that game, and that leads me to believe that Duke was no less ready for that game than if they had been given a week’s rest.

All class.

I’m happy that Krzyzewski gave the Buckeyes credit for great play in the game, both in that quote and in talking about their defensive effort,

“We couldn’t hit a shot. Their defense was outstanding and then they got hot. They can score from a number of different positions. They had a great crowd, they had a lot going for them and they took advantage of everything. Congratulations to them. We can be good too, we just weren’t good tonight and they had a lot to do with that.”

However, I’m a little disappointed that Krzyzewski attempted to make excuses for his team’s poor play, rather than simply admit that his team faced a better opponent and let it lie.  By claiming an excuse for his team’s poor play he negates those things he said about the Buckeyes, focusing on the negatives of his own team (imagined ones at that) rather than the positives of his opponent.

The Buckeyes, having shot more than 50% from beyond the arc for the first time this season, shooting more than 50% from the floor, and holding Duke to 3-15 from beyond the arc, were by far and away the better team on the court.  They received the best Duke had to muster and turned it into a 22 point shellacking that Duke hasn’t experienced from a Big Ten team since the 1958-59 season*.

That was made entirely possible by the play of this excellent Buckeye Basketball team.

*25 point loss to Michigan State

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