The ACC’s top two teams will meet on Saturday night when the No. 1 Duke Blue Devils host the No. 4 Virginia Cavaliers at Cameron Indoor. The two teams could not operate more differently: with Tony Bennett’s trademark Pack-Line defense and slow-and-steady play perfectly juxtaposing Coach K’s crew of high-flying freshmen. Last year Virginia stunned Duke in Durham, walking away with an unexpected—and exceedingly rare—win on the road against the Blue Devils. Things are different this year, however, with the likes of Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish commanding the court for the Blue Devils and with the Cavaliers traditionally lackluster offense playing with unprecedented conviction. So what will determine the outcome of Saturday’s conference clash?
Here are the three keys:
1. Tre Jones’s absence
How Duke deals with the absence of its star floor general while going against Virginia will set the entire tone for round one in this highly anticipated home-and-home ACC showdown. Jones, who separated his AC joint during the Blue Devils’ loss to Syracuse on Monday, has been ruled out “indefinitely,” and while Mike Krzyzewski said Thursday that Jones could be back soon, he's unlikely to see the court Saturday.
The freshman, while not a leading scorer, has been a flawless facilitator and crucial playmaker for Duke, helping his team get the most out of the numerous talents on the floor at any given time. He led the team in assists with 5.9 per game before departing Monday’s contest with 14 minutes remaining in the first half, and his exit also revealed a lack of depth that Duke will have to grapple with when going against Virginia.
The Blue Devils replaced Jones with Jordan Goldwire early on, but it just wasn’t quite clicking which led to Barrett bringing the ball up the court instead. Jack White and Alex O'Connell shifted in while Barrett ran point; O'Connell set a career-high with 16 points but White finished 0-for-10 from the field (all three-pointers—keep reading for more on that) despite seeing a career-high 42 minutes of playing time. Barrett added 23 points while facilitating but has continually had to put up an insane number of shots per game to see big numbers in return. Paying attention to playmaking factored into an 8-for-30 night from the field by Barrett on Monday, which isn’t something Duke can afford come Virginia.
Moral of the story: the Blue Devils will have trouble knocking off Virginia without Jones, especially considering that they’ve played just three-quarters of a game without him. While they’ve likely spent the week figuring out how to function without his steady hand at the helm, they may get off to a rocky start on Saturday. If they let Virginia pull ahead even slightly as they deal with Jones’s absence, Duke may have trouble catching up to the ‘Hoos considering how hard it is to overcome a deficit against their defense with the few opportunities Virginia will give it. Consider also that Jones is arguably the team’s best defensive player and that gives the Cavaliers’ offense more room to operate. Which leads us to key No. 2.
2. Virginia’s offense
When most people talk about Tony Bennett’s team, they talk about his defense. The Pack Line has proven effective against the Blue Devils, even at Cameron Indoor (see: last year’s game), and has looked solid this season despite the loss of key defensive cogs Devon Hall and Isaiah Wilkins. Even if the Cavaliers’ can contain Duke with their oppressive scheme, a key here will be Virginia’s offensive production. Using a suffocating defense to limit the Blue Devils scoring is one thing, but the Cavaliers have to simultaneously put up enough points to match, and beat, a slowed-down-Duke.
This is a common point of concern: Virginia doesn’t typically have the scoring prowess to match potential title contenders, even if it can mitigate an opponent’s offensive impact. But this year’s team looks more balanced offensively and defensively than we’ve seen from any recent Tony Bennett team in Charlottesville. Through the team’s 16–0 start, the ‘Hoos rank second in the nation in defensive efficiency and third in the country in offensive efficiency (compared to 30th at the conclusion of last season) after dropping 81 points on No. 9 Virginia Tech while holding the Hokies to just 59 of their own.
De’Andre Hunter, Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome, the latter of whom finished Tuesday night’s rout of their in-state rival with a double double, led UVA by pouring in 21, 15 and 14 points, respectively. While those numbers don’t quite match R.J. Barrett’s season average of 23.4 points per game or Zion Williamson’s 21.4, Virginia has improved enough on offense to challenge the Blue Devils—if all three are locked in on Saturday.
How effectively Virginia’s offense functions with the weapons it does have will determine the fate of this weekend’s top-five contest. Whether or not Virginia can find its flow on both sides of the ball—and whether or not bench players like Braxton Key, Kihei Clark (who added nine points against Virginia Tech on 3-for-6 shooting) and Jay Huff (3 for 3 for seven points) can come in and do some additional damage—is key No. 2.
3. Perimeter Play
Virginia’s Pack-Line defense is infamously hard to infiltrate and intentionally forces more shots from deep than Duke is used to taking. On the other side of this coin is the fact that Virginia doesn't necessarily have the size to get a whole lot done in the paint against Duke’s defenders (Zion Williamson is just downright massive), who have played surprisingly effective defense this season, good enough for fourth in the nation, per kenpom. Whoever owns the arc will walk away with a win.
Statistically speaking, the Cavaliers look like they own perimeter play in this matchup. Shooting 40.8% from deep as a team, Virginia holds an advantage over Duke’s 31.8% this season.
During their takedown of Virginia Tech, Virginia shot lights out, especially on the arc. It sunk 58% from the field, but more impressive was the 13 threes the Cavaliers knocked down from deep at a 54% clip, while holding the Hokies to 43% and 33%, respectively. In the first half, the ‘Hoos shot 68% from three. They were draining from deep at an almost unprecedented level.
Contrast that with Duke’s struggles on the perimeter, which were a large part of why it lost to Syracuse on Monday: with the Orange's stifling 2-3 zone and with Cam Reddish out with an illness, the Blue Devils shot just 20.9% from three, attempting 43 and sinking just nine, eight of which came from the combined efforts of Barrett and O’Connell, who was brought in off the bench. The Orange also held Duke to 38.7% overall from the field and put 95 points of their own on the board through overtime—the most Coach K’s squad has allowed all season—while shooting at 44% from both the field and the arc.
All in all, the game’s third key will come down to who can play the perimeter better despite the unique challenges posed in this by their opponent: the Cavaliers’ sharpshooting guards will have to be locked in at the arc on Saturday night if they want to match the points Duke will still likely manage to get in the paint, despite the Pack Line’s best efforts. The Blue Devils will score a lot, even when limited by talented defenses (they still managed 69 points against Texas Tech—the lowest number they’ve posted this season, but a number Virginia doesn’t always get to). The Cavaliers are averaging 74 points per game, which means the margin of error for Virginia’s offense is very thin, and its perimeter efforts will be key to matching Duke’s offensive output.
The Blue Devils, on the other hand, will need whatever extra points they can get from three to overcome the greater pressure that they’ll face down the middle from the Pack Line. For both teams, three-point shooting is going to be crucial. Success at the arc might seal the fate of Saturday’s showdown.