6:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Virginia -2.5, Over/Under: 135.5
Let’s play it again, shall we? For the second time this season, ACC juggernauts collide in a Top-5 Matchup, as the Second-Ranked Duke Blue Devils face off against the Third-Ranked Virginia Cavaliers from John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Virginia. The victor of the previous meeting was Duke (20-2, 8-1 in ACC), who managed to rebound from what was just their second loss of the season, a 91-95 defeat against Syracuse in Overtime, to grind out a narrow 72-70 victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils sat atop the Polls back on January 19th, though welcomed the Cavaliers with the proverbial deck stacked against them. Not only were they coming off a home loss against an unranked opponent, but they did so without the services of Freshman Point Guard Tre Jones (8.5 PTS, 44.3% FG, 28.2% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 5.5 AST, 2.0 STL, 17.2 PER), who suffered a mild shoulder injury early in the affair with the Orange courtesy of a collision diving for a loose ball. However, Mike Krzyzewski’s charges rose to the challenge without their young floor general, torching Virginia’s typically suffocating defense to the tune of 51.0% shooting from the field, with the vast majority of their production coming inside the arc, where they knocked down a stellar 24-of-37 attempts (64.9%), in comparison to just 2-of-14 from beyond it (14.3%). Now you may expect a team’s ball-movement to stall without their Point Guard, and that was certainly the case here, for the hosts only amassed Six Assists, but in all honesty, it didn’t matter, for Jones’ fellow sublime Freshmen more than carried the burden of the offense. Simply put, Zion Williamson (22.0 PTS, 68.2% FG, 28.6% 3FG, 9.4 REB, 2.3 AST, 2.2 STL, 2.0 BLK, 42.5 PER) and R.J. Barrett (23.0 PTS, 45.0% FG, 31.4% 3FG, 7.2 REB, 3.7 AST, 1.0 STL, 0.5 BLK, 24.5 PER) were absolutely dominant, combining for a whopping Fifty-Seven Points, with the former leading the way with a game-high Thirty on 11-of-19 shooting (57.9%) and the latter not far behind with Twenty-Seven on 10-of-16 shooting (62.5%). And did they ever need this kind of production, because this matchup was every bit the heavyweight fight that it was billed to be; there were fourteen ties and fifteen lead changes, with the two teams being separated by a single possession from the 14:30 mark in the second half onward.
If you throw yet another highly-recruited Freshman, Cam Reddish (13.5 PTS, 35.9% FG, 34.0% 3FG, 3.4 REB, 2.1 AST, 2.0 STL, 15.3 PER), into the mix, then Duke saw three players virtually dominate the game, with the aforementioned trio accounting for a staggering Forty-Seven of their Fifty-One Field Goals, and Sixty-Six of their Seventy-Two Points. But then again, Coach K has relied HEAVILY on this stud Freshman Class, who have registered 67.0 of the team’s 87.0 Points per Game (4th Overall), which equates to roughly 77.0% of their Offense. The Blue Devils should be at full health for today’s meeting, but something else to watch for is how they approach defending the Cavaliers in this rematch. When they met back in mid-January, Krzyzewski added an unexpected wrinkle to the gameplan, with his troops switching relentlessly on the defensive end of the court, an adjustment that clearly unsettled Virginia. This allowed the home side to stay with their shooters, closing space on catch & shoot threes, which was evidenced in the visitors’ 3-of-17 performance from beyond the arc (17.6%). Granted, if it was so easy, one would figure that more teams would attempt to employ such a strategy, but the difference is that Duke has the personnel to do it; Barrett, Williamson, and Reddish are each 6’7″ or taller, with the requisite length combined with the athleticism to stick with shooters and keep them from getting too comfortable from the perimeter. It appears that that affair really ignited a fire for this team, which has since strung together five consecutive victories by the widest of margins, steamrolling the competition by an average margin of 21.0 Points per Game over the span.
Meanwhile, Virginia (20-1, 8-1 in ACC) too has picked things up since suffering their lone defeat of the campaign, winning each of their last four contests since coming up short in Durham back in January. When we last saw them, the Cavaliers overcame a second straight uneven performance on the offensive end thanks to their dominant Defense in a 56-46 victory over Miami last Saturday. The home side shot just 42.3% from the field in front of the faithful from John Paul Jones Arena, while committing at least Fourteen Turnovers for the second consecutive outing. That was perhaps to be expected, given that their Starting point Guard, Ty Jerome (13.0 PTS, 43.1% FG, 40.6% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 5.0 AST, 1.6 STL, 23.2 PER), sat out the affair due to soreness in his back, paving the way for his freshman understudy Kihei Clark (4.7 PTS, 33.7% FG, 34.8% 3FG, 1.8 REB, 2.2 AST, 0.7 STL, 7.9 PER) to fill the void. The youngster dished out Six Assists, but also committed Six of his side’s Sixteen Turnovers. However, Tony Bennett’s troops completely shut down the Hurricanes on the opposite end of the floor, relegating them to a scant 34.0% from the field, including 4-of-21 from downtown (19.0%). To put things into perspective, the visitors nearly had fewer Field Goals (17) than the hosts had Assists (16). De’Andre Hunter (14.7 PTS, 52.9% FG, 43.2% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 2.2 AST, 0.6 STL, 25.3 PER) led the way with Fourteen Points on 6-of-13 shooting (46.2%), along with Six Rebounds, Two Assists, Two Steals, and a Block, while Kyle Guy (14.5 PTS, 45.3% FG, 43.8% 3FG, 4.5 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.7 STL, 20.5 PER) added another Ten Points on just 4-of-15 shooting (26.7%), with Four Rebounds, Three Assists, and a Steal. Mamadi Diakite (7.0 PTS, 55.7% FG, 3.9 REB, 0.3 AST, 0.4 STL, 1.3 BLK, 20.8 PER) finished with Eleven Points on 4-of-7 shooting (57.1%), and with Three Blocks has accumulated eleven in the last three games.
However, the question remains if they can make the necessary changes to prevent a repeat of their previous meeting with the Blue Devils. As we touched upon earlier, Bennett’s charges were clearly stymied by their opponent’s incessant switching on Defense, which really hurt their performance on the offensive end of the court down the stretch. In the Second Half, the Cavaliers shot just 2-of-7 from downtown (28.6%), and during one particularly miserable nine-minute stretch missed eleven of twelve shots from the field altogether, which was just demoralizing considering how close the game throughout the final fifteen minutes. It was certainly uncharacteristic for a team that typically makes their opponents pay from deep; Virginia Fourteenth in the Country (39.5%) and First in the Atlantic Coast Conference (40.0%) Three-Point Shooting. Their three leading scorers, the aforementioned Hunter (43.2%), Guy (43.8%), and Jerome (40.6%), each shoot over 40.0% from deep. With that said, what was even more disappointing than their poor shooting from the perimeter, was how they were eviscerated in the paint. While the visitors struggled to throw the ball into the ocean, the hosts on the other hand, relentlessly bullied their way to the rim, shooting 63.0% from the field in the Second Half, including 12-of-15 shooting from inside the arc, in route to relinquishing a season-high Seventy-Two Points. Again, this is a team that yields the fewest points in the country (52.9 P/G). It cannot be understated just how seismic this rematch is for both teams, but more so for Virginia, who is embroiled in a three-way tie with North Carolina along with their opponent tonight for First Place in the ACC, and hasn’t beaten Duke in Charlottesville since 2013.