- This week's roundtable looks at Duke-Virginia Part II, the increasingly-tight Big Ten race and a crucial Big East weekend showdown.
Excited for a big weekend? Not only do we get Duke vs. Virginia Part II on Saturday—this time in Charlottesville—but we also get the first of two showdowns between the Big East's clear top two teams and a number of other enticing matchups. To get ready, this week's roundtable focuses on the Cavaliers' keys to beating the Blue Devils, Villanova-Marquette and a drama-filled Big Ten race.
1. What's the single-biggest key to Virginia getting the win this time against Duke?
Dan Greene: Take care of the ball (again). Not only can you not afford to give away possessions against a team as good as the Blue Devils, but they are also absolutely lethal in transition. The Cavs took care of the ball the first time (a 12.5% turnover rate, lower than any team averages this year) and were a couple made shots away from a road win. If they do the same again, the game should again be within reach.
Jeremy Woo: The home court advantage obviously helps, but Virginia is going to need Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy to shoot it better from outside to topple Duke (who, frighteningly, left a ton of free throws on the table in the last game and still won). Even if the game unfolds at Virginia’s preferred, slower pace, you’re going into this with the understanding that Zion and R.J. Barrett are going to get their points. The Cavaliers don’t have a ton of firepower off the bench or in the paint, so the onus falls on their backcourt to shoot it better than a combined 3 of 17 from outside if they want to keep up. They almost pulled it off last time, which should inspire some confidence, but a team that can beat you as many different ways as Duke is an evolving challenge.
Molly Geary: The Cavaliers need to hit their three-point shots. Virginia's 3-for-17 performance (17.5%) in the first matchup with Duke was its worst perimeter outing of the season and one of just three times in 21 games that it's shot below 30% from the outside (UVA had a similarly bad outing in the loss to UMBC last March). The Hoos' overall offense actually wasn't bad back in the game at Cameron—it scored 1.11 points per possession and shot 69% on two-pointers—but the flip side is that Duke had a good-but-not-great day as well, shooting 2 for 14 from three and missing 13 free throws. The difference is, three-pointers are a much bigger part of Virginia's offense than Duke's, and the Cavaliers will need to shoot better to stay with the barrage of interior attacking the Blue Devils are bound to attempt.
Michael Shapiro: Not much separated Virginia and Duke in the Blue Devils’ 72–70 win on Jan. 19. The Cavaliers tied Duke in turnovers and got beat by just two on the boards, with Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter both ending the night in double figures. But the biggest culprit for Virginia’s defeat came at the free-throw line. Duke attempted 14 more free throws than Tony Bennett’s squad, with R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson combining for 25 foul shots. Expect the Cavaliers to suffocate Duke once again on the perimeter. But limiting Duke’s free trips to the line could provide the difference in Saturday’s rematch.
Eric Single: To flip the script in Charlottesville, the Cavaliers' top performer in the teams' first meeting needs to be just as good the second time around. De'Andre Hunter played 38 minutes and put up 18 points to lead all scores not named Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, looking like the closest athletic equal to Duke's five-star freshmen and the Hoo you had to locate on both ends of the court. Virginia is too good to turn in another 3-of-17 three-point shooting performance, and if its primary shooters regress back to mere mediocrity and match Hunter's productivity, the Cavaliers can be the ones that dictate the scoring pace this time.
Max Meyer: Honestly not much, since Virginia kept it a close game wire-to-wire at Cameron. I’ll go with the obvious answer: knock down more shots from outside. The Hoos are 13th in the conference in three-point percentage (39.4), and that number has risen to 40.0 in ACC play (first in the conference). So Virginia making only three of its 17 attempts from beyond the arc certainly seems like a bit of an anomaly. It doesn’t help that perimeter pest Tre Jones will be back for this one, but if the Hoos shoot a percentage closer to their season average from three, there’s a very strong chance they win this rematch.
Caron: Offensive efficiency, especially at the arc. Virginia shot just 17.6% from deep at Cameron Indoor during round one–while the team’s sweet spot at the three has been hovering around 40% in conference contests. Without those threes, the ‘Hoos struggled to sink shots and put up enough points to beat the Blue Devils. Every bucket counts when you’re playing against Zion Williamson & Co. (especially with Tre Jones back in action).
2. The Big Ten race just got a lot more interesting, with three teams on top at 9–2 and streaking Wisconsin knocking on the door at 8–3. Who's your pick to win the crown and why?
Greene: As fun as the Purdue and Wisconsin surges are making it, I still think this comes down to Michigan and Michigan State in those two late-season matchups, and despite the recent slide I'm going with the Spartans. They're the most balanced between both ends of the floor and this two-game slide—a road loss at red-hot Purdue and an OT defeat to a desperate Indiana—feels like more of a lull than a turning point.
Woo: Michigan. I refuse to waver from my early-season stance on this one: there’s nobody in the conference that can topple the Wolverines when they’re at their best, and I don’t think this is a case of Michigan peaking in November. I expect it to get back on track against Rutgers and then edge out Wisconsin this week. A pair of late-season games against Michigan State will probably decide the conference.
Geary: I'm going to say Purdue. I don't necessarily think the Boilermakers are a better overall team than either of the Michigan schools (the gap is small, but the other two are more balanced), but they've already been through the toughest part of their schedule. Purdue is done with its games against Michigan, Michigan State and Wisconsin and has just one game left against a team currently in either the AP top 25 or the top 25 on kenpom (at Maryland). The Michigan schools still must face each other twice, while the Wolverines also get Wisconsin once and the Terps twice, and the Spartans must travel to Madison. Should Michigan State win both of its games against its in-state rival, however, it could be in a great position to win the crown.
Shapiro: I wouldn’t deem Purdue the Big Ten team most likely to reach the Final Four, but I’ll still ride with the Boilermakers as favorites for the conference title. They face just one ranked team through the rest of the regular season, while Michigan State still has to battle Wisconsin and Michigan twice. Joshua Langford’s injury won’t help the Spartans’ quest for the Big Ten crown, either. Michigan has a similarly difficult schedule, facing Wisconsin, Maryland twice and Michigan State twice before March 9. By virtue of schedule over perhaps anything else, give me Purdue to claim the regular-season title.
Single: Michigan State. Don't let the two-game losing streak fool you. We've come to assume that every big Cassius Winston shot is falling, and that Kenny Goins is the type of senior utility man who will put together a quiet double double in the biggest game of the year. In a conference where nobody's perfect, the Spartans have a high offensive ceiling and a defense that demands you hit tough shots.
Meyer: Purdue has the best chance of winning the regular season crown. The Boilermakers don’t have any games against Michigan, Michigan State or Wisconsin remaining on their schedule. In fact, besides possibly a road game at Maryland, Purdue will be favored in every single game for the remainder of the regular season. The Boilermakers have the best player in the conference in Carsen Edwards, and can beat you in a variety of ways thanks to the versatility of their roster.
Caron: I’m still rolling with the Spartans. I picked Michigan State to make the Final Four this year because they’re one of the more balanced teams in the country—two straight losses and all. Michigan is obviously the Big Ten’s defensive juggernaut, and Purdue takes the conference’s offensive honor in that regard but the Spartans are solid across the board. I say they bounce back and finish conference contests strong this month.
3. Meanwhile, the Big East is a two-team race, and those teams (Villanova and Marquette) meet for the first time on Saturday. Which side needs that win more?
Greene: Marquette. The Golden Eagles are at home, for one, and currently a game back in the standings, meaning they would either leave the game tied or two games back, which is a substantial swing. But there's also the possibility that the insurgent team would get a boost of affirmation, especially since they have faltered in some big games already, getting blown out by Indiana in November and St. John's in the first game of Big East play.
Woo: Marquette. This conference tends to run through Villanova, and falling two games behind them with a month or so left is likely an uphill chase. This isn’t Jay Wright’s best team, but they’ve hit a groove in a thin conference. Marquette needs to at least split the pair of games to have a chance, and it needs the home leg badly.
Geary: If we're talking strictly about the Big East race, it's Marquette, which will enter the matchup already a game behind the Wildcats (assuming both win their first game this week). But in terms of national perception and confidence, I'm going to say Villanova. The Wildcats have been rolling of late and haven't lost since Dec. 15, but they haven't exactly been playing Murderer's Row in the Big East. In that stretch, they have only two kenpom top-50 wins, and both of those teams (St. John's and Creighton) are just barely within the top 50. Obviously, the Golden Eagles face the same league schedule, but outside of an early blowout by Indiana they had a better non-conference showing. I've been in a wait-and-see mode with 'Nova for a while now, and am eager to see how it responds on the road to its biggest test since the loss at Kansas.
Shapiro: Villanova looks right back in the Final Four picture after its early-season swoon, but the pressure still resides with Jay Wright and the Wildcats on Saturday. Villanova hasn’t beat a ranked team during its 10-game win streak, and hasn’t registered a ranked win since November. Marquette logged wins over Wisconsin and Buffalo in December, and even with likely All-American Markus Howard, doen’t have the weight of Final Four expectations. Saturday will provide a crucial test for Villanova as it seeks a third national title in the last four years.
Single: Villanova. If the Wildcats' defense limits sharpshooter Markus Howard or otherwise hamstrings the Golden Eagles' high-flying attack, the rest of the Big East will officially be playing for second. Marquette may be the usurper, but Villanova's the team with the target on its back.
Meyer: Marquette has non-conference wins over Louisville, Kansas State, Wisconsin and Buffalo. Villanova did edge Florida State, but that’s the only true great win on its current résumé. The Wildcats also lost to Furman and Penn. Both teams are making the NCAA tournament this season, but if Villanova wants a top-four seed, it’ll have to pick up a win like this on the road.
Caron: Neither team has had a terribly tough slate so far, but expectations were so much higher for the ‘Cats going into the season than they were for Marquette, Markus Howard and all. Villanova needs a strong win this weekend, especially considering that it’s lost to the only two kenpom top-25 teams it has faced. A win on the road for the Wildcats would make a huge statement in the Big East.