After a surprisingly close win against Clemson Saturday, Duke travels to Charlottesville, Va., Wednesday to face Virginia as it continues to seek a statement road victory. The Blue Devils will be looking for their sixth win in a row and their fifth victory against a ranked opponent.The Blue Zone takes a look at a player from each team who could be the difference-maker in the game:
Duke: Guard Matt Jones
Through the ups and downs of Duke’s season so far, one name has remained relatively under the radar as his teammates have rotated through the national spotlight. Matt Jones has not exploded into the nation’s basketball consciousness like Luke Kennard, nor has he had his name tossed around draft boards like several of his younger teammates. He has not drawn the ire of fans across the country like Grayson Allen, and, unlike his head coach, he has appeared in every game this season for the Blue Devils. But Jones has been a constant source of leadership and maturity for a team that has desperately needed it, and is one of the main reasons Duke still has the opportunity to be a top contender in a historically competitive ACC season.
Last week against North Carolina, Allen stole the headlines with his offensive explosion from beyond the arc, lighting up the Tar Heels for 25 points and seven triples. Jones, however, made perhaps the play of the game in typical fashion for the senior guard, hustling to secure a 50-50 ball and grab the offensive rebound that all but sealed the Blue Devils’ signature victory of the season.
On the road at Virginia, his hustle and leadership will count just as much as his ability to knock down a couple triples. Virginia’s pack line defense can be stifling—the Cavaliers lead the nation in scoring defense, giving up just 55.1 points per game. The most points they have surrendered in regulation this season is 73 in a win against Clemson. Duke, however, has the No. 21 scoring offense in the country and plenty of offensive weapons.
The key to taking down the Cavaliers will be for Duke to remain composed on both ends of the floor, and for its defense—which has been shaky at times this year—to help fuel its offense, particularly in transition. Jones leads the team with 42 steals this year—nearly doubling his next closest teammate, Jayson Tatum, who has 23. And despite playing the second-most minutes this season, Jones has the fewest turnovers among six players who have logged at least 500 minutes on the court. This is what Duke needs against a mature team like Virginia: Hustle, defense and the ability to take care of the ball on offense. Anything else from Jones—a few added 3-pointers or assists—is icing on the cake.
Virginia: Guard Marial Shayok
Compared to the Blue Devils, Virginia’s bench has seen much more action this year, as 10 players on its roster have logged more than 250 minutes this year, compared to just six players on Duke’s roster. One of the Cavaliers' most important contributors off the bench so far has been Marial Shayok, who has started in their last 10 games after coming off the bench in their first 14.
Despite not starting every game, the guard from Ottawa, Canada, is second on the team in points per game and also has the second most steals for the top defense in the nation. Virginia’s offense runs through point guard London Perrantes, but for the Cavaliers to take advantage of Duke’s occasional lapses, Shayok will have to step up. With his ability to power through defenders and find shots around the paint as well as knock down midrange jumpers, he can be a dynamic scorer who is hard to match up against. Shayok has proven he can score against other top teams, notching 14 points in Virginia’s tight loss to Villanova and 10 in another two-point loss to Florida State.
Besides his scoring, he will be called upon to shut down several of Duke’s most dynamic offensive weapons, such as Kennard or Allen. Last season against the Blue Devils, Shayok held Allen to a 4-of-11 shooting from the field, but Allen bested him with a buzzer-beater in the paint on the final play of the game to win.