CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — With the news this week that injured forward Ryan Kelly had returned to practice and could play as soon as Tuesday against Virginia Tech, the power forward position has been central to recent discussions of the Blue Devils.
Thursday night, though, Duke’s power forwards were nowhere to be found as Virginia bullied past the Blue Devils for a 73-68 win at John Paul Jones arena.
“The four position was not played tonight by us,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Those kids have done a good job for us, but tonight they didn’t play very well. We had zero offensive rebounds from that position, and that position is not blocked out.”
The good news is that Kelly dressed for the Virginia game and warmed up with the team, though he did not play. The bad news was that when Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson were in the game, they were largely ineffective, combining for just three rebounds, all on the defensive end. As a result, Krzyzewski turned to a four-guard lineup for long stretches, with Hairston and Jefferson combining for just 28 minutes.
“When they play four guards, they’re not real big, besides Plumlee,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. “That gives you help [rebounding].”
The Cavaliers effectively converted those rebounds into buckets, scoring 18 second-chance points off their nine offensive rebounds. Overall, Virginia outrebounded the Blue Devils 33-21.
Duke only had two offensive boards, and because offensive rebounds often result in some of the most wide-open looks from beyond the arc, that turned out to be a crucial problem for a 3-point shooting team like the Blue Devils.
When Tyler Thornton finally corralled Duke’s first offensive board nearly six minutes into the second half, he kicked the ball out to Seth Curry for an open 3-pointer that the senior, who finished the game 4-of-8 from beyond the arc, was able to knock down. As a team, though, the Blue Devils hit just 8-of-25 attempts from distance.
Virginia, by contrast, took just 11 3-pointers, opting instead to battle closer to the basket. As a result Virginia outscored Duke 34-22 in the paint and held the Blue Devils to under 40-percent shooting from the field.
“We didn’t move the ball well enough,” Curry said. “On screens and down screens and things like that they trapped and were real physically, and the only way to beat that is to move the ball real quickly and find the open man because when they trap, there’s an open person. But we just weren’t physical enough and didn’t do that.”
By contrast, Virginia was able to create scoring opportunities in the lane by moving well without the ball. Although the Cavaliers’ execution was characteristically slow—they are the seventh-slowest team according to college basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy—it generally resulted in open looks. Too often, Duke relied on isolation plays, and many of the plays that ran through Mason Plumlee were cut off by trapping Virginia defenders, who quickly sought to double-team the senior captain.
“They always doubled the post. They were playing a man and a half, and then committed two on the pass,” Plumlee said. “We can’t beat [double-teams] with just one guy. I can’t just kick it out to Quinn and it’s just Quinn’s shot. We have to beat doubles as a team.”
Despite being dominated all game, Duke made things interesting by aggressively attacking the basket at the end. That, in turn, opened up better looks from the perimeter for Cook and Curry, who caught fire in the second half and finished with 28 and 22 points, respectively.
But every time the Blue Devils appeared to put together a run, the Cavaliers were able to get the ball inside for an easier shot. Joe Harris seemed to be the one answering with a pair of his 36 points in each of those instances.