With two games in three days, No. 3 Duke (24-3, 11-3 in the ACC) will be tested as though the postseason has already arrived.
In a clash between the second and third place teams in the conference, the Blue Devils travel to face the Cavaliers (19-8, 9-5) tonight at 9 p.m. in Charlottesville, Va.
While many Blue Devil fans may already be looking ahead to the looming top-five matchup against Miami Saturday, Virginia comes into the contest on a 15-game home winning streak.
“They’re just a really good basketball team,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said in his weekly teleconference. “It’s a team that fans would like. Your fans would really love a team the way that [Virginia head coach] Tony [Bennett’s] put his team together.”
And the fans certainly appreciate the results and his team, with the 15,000-seat John Paul Jones Arena sold out as of Monday.
The Cavaliers defeated Georgia Tech at home Sunday to snap a two-game skid on the road against North Carolina and Miami. For a roster including seven freshman, playing at home may be vital for Virginia to claim its first win against Duke since 2007.
“It’s key in maybe getting the crowd on our side, being more comfortable playing in front of our home crowd,” Cavalier guard Joe Harris said. “It’s always tough playing at Cameron Indoor, so I guess it was fortunate that the only time we’re playing Duke this season is at home.”
Harris, a junior who leads Virginia with 16.6 points per game, is a player Krzyzewski described as “a warrior,” comparing him to former Blue Devil forward Kyle Singler in their toughness and how they lead a team.
“He’s one of the favorite players that I’ve watched, not just in our conference but around the country,” Krzyzewski said. “I think he’s that good.”
Bennett echoed much of what Krzyzewski said, speaking highly of the “ruggedness” Harris displays leading the Cavaliers and his willingness to do everything required to improve the Virginia basketball program.
Harris said he does not feel overwhelming pressure to lead his team to victory because Virginia, like Duke, has a variety of scoring options. And on the defensive end, Harris is supported by a crew that has kept opponents to 54.0 points per game, the fourth fewest in Division I.
“[The Blue Devils] have tons of offensive options,” Harris said. “One guy on any night can go off. But our defense is very team oriented. It’s not really one guy going up against Mason Plumlee, for example, but it’s more guarding whoever has the ball as a team.”
One of Duke’s offensive weapons is freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, who had a career-high 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting against Boston College Sunday. Sulaimon, who is the tallest of Duke’s starting perimeter players, may even be tasked with guarding the 6-foot-6 Harris at times.
“I think Rasheed’s very complete,” Bennett said in his weekly teleconference. “Defensively, long, quick, shoots the three well and uses a lot of dimensions of his game and seems to play very, very efficiently for a freshman.”
Sulaimon—who is averaging 18.3 points during his last four games—may have trouble recreating his scoring feat against the defensive-oriented Cavaliers, whose points against average ranks first in the ACC. Duke, on the other hand, is the highest-scoring team in the conference with Virginia 10th in that category.
Despite that disparity, Duke and Virginia are first and second, respectively, in scoring margin in the ACC. This has led the Cavaliers to be known as a team that slows the pace of the game, a notion Krzyzewski disagrees with.
“I don’t think they’re a slow-down team, I think they’re a smart basketball team that will take opportunistic shots,” Krzyzewski said. “When they get a good shot, they’ll take it. They’re more so an efficient team.”
With the postseason beginning in two weeks, this game will also affect the postseason fortunes of both teams.
The Blue Devils cannot afford to drop more games to have any hopes of winning the ACC regular season title, already two games behind Miami. A win could also aid Duke’s case for a No. 1 seeding in the NCAA Tournament.
For Virginia, the win would move them within a game of the Blue Devils in the conference standings. As a team on the NCAA Tournament bubble, the implications could be much greater.
“We understand where we’re at with our Tournament resume,” Harris said. “To get a win against a team like Duke would be huge for us and our chances of going to the tournament.”
Not only that, but Harris also said a victory will show how far they have progressed in Bennett’s fourth season in rebuilding the program.