- Duke reasserted its case to be the undisputed top dog in college basketball this season, earning a victory over its biggest ACC challenger without the services of point guard Tre Jones.
The fourth meeting of the concurrent No. 1 teams in the AP Poll and Coaches Poll in college basketball history lived up to the billing, and after Michigan took its first loss of the season at Wisconsin and Tennessee had to hang on for dear life at home against Alabama, Duke's 72–70 win over Virginia might as well have been a title belt unification match.
With the vanquishing of the 2018–19 season's final undefeated team, it's time to reset the table and strap in for a breakneck two-month sprint to Selection Sunday. At the end of a seven-day stretch in which it faced more adversity than it had all year to that point, Duke has reasserted its case to be the undisputed top dog in college basketball this season, putting away its biggest ACC challenger without the services of point guard Tre Jones.
The first time Duke came across a team good enough to push it wire-to-wire this season, the Blue Devils lost on a drive, or rather a series of drives, by R.J. Barrett, who was ultimately turned away in the dying seconds by Gonzaga big man Rui Hachimura. Saturday brought something like redemption for the nation's top-ranked recruit, who stepped to the forefront when the basketball gods turned three-pointers off before pressing Start on the biggest game of a wild Saturday.
Without Jones, missing his first game since suffering an AC sprain in his shoulder in Monday's overtime loss to Syracuse, Barrett took matters into his own hands and scored eight of Duke's final 11 points, including buckets on consecutive late trips down the floor that created rare separation in a game that spent most of the second half within a possession.
Barrett finished with 30 points, followed closely by fellow freshman sensation dynamo Zion Williamson with 27, as the Blue Devils were more than happy to slash and drive on a day outside shots weren't falling for anyone. Virginia entered Saturday shooting 40.8% from three, tied for seventh in the country, and left with a 3-for-17 performance from distance that doomed the Cavaliers to their first loss, their 18th in the last 19 trips to Durham after the program's long winless streak was snapped last year.
Duke did not trail from the first media timeout to the halftime buzzer, dominating the glass (first-half offensive rebound margin: 9–2) and taking advantage of its few opportunities to penetrate Virginia's defense outside of the half court. But the Blue Devils' biggest early victory came at their own end, where the five days they had to study the shortcomings of their perimeter defense after Syracuse hit 11 threes at Cameron Indoor Stadium seemed to bear fruit. The Cavaliers opened 1-of-8 from three-point range, and UVA coach Tony Bennett mentioned during his halftime interview that the Blue Devils were the first team talented enough (or at least willing) to switch on ball screens and handoffs at all five positions on the floor, which provided another wrinkle far from the basket.
Virginia countered with brutal efficiency inside the arc: The Cavaliers hit more than three-quarters of their twos in the first half and finished 69.4% on two-point field goals. Sophomore forward De'Andre Hunter set the pace early on, and eventually Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy followed, with Duke junior center Marques Bolden as the primary target to be taken one-on-one.
The Cavaliers quickly erased Duke's five-point halftime lead, jump-starting a back-and-forth battle down the stretch—from the 15:01 mark to 7:30 neither team held a lead of more than one. But soon Williamson started to create space for himself to drive with his preferred left hand and Barrett bounced back from a nightmarish 8-for-30 showing from the floor against Syracuse, and the UVA offense ran out of answers. Cam Reddish was back in the lineup after missing Monday's game with an illness, but his role in the ice-cold outside shooting performance made the Blue Devils largely the same two-man team they were after Jones went down against the Orange. And as their previously unbeaten opponent learned, it's a pretty deadly two-man team.
Duke and Virginia will meet again in three weeks in Charlottesville, at which point everything can be reassessed (maybe even with both teams back at full strength, depending on the health of Jones's shoulder). Until then, Duke is alone in the ring.