After the Blue Devils ruined Virginia's shot at perfection last season on its home floor, the Cavaliers are marching down to Durham looking to return the favor and win in Durham for the first time in 17 tries.
Duke continues its treacherous journey through the heart of the ACC Saturday when No. 7 Virginia comes calling at 4:30 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils picked up their first win against a ranked opponent Monday against No. 19 Louisville, and a win against swingman Malcom Brogdon and the Cavaliers could propel Duke back into the top 25 after a two-week absence.
The last two regular-season contests between the Blue Devils and Cavaliers have gone right down to the wire, but though Virginia's cast from those clashes is largely intact, Duke's heroes have moved on.
In 2013, Rasheed Sulaimon's high, friendly bounce from the home rim in Cameron on a corner 3-pointer with 22 seconds left provided the go-ahead basket, lifting the Blue Devils to a 67-65 win. A year later, big triples by Quinn Cook and Tyus Jones helped Duke dig out of a 58-50 hole to hand the Cavaliers their first loss of the season.
All three are now former Blue Devils, but Brogdon, forward Anthony Gill and guard London Perrantes remain anchors in Virginia head coach Tony Bennett's physical pack-line defense, which will present an enormous challenge for Duke's short-handed squad Saturday.
"They don't really pressure you—you can run offense, you can make passes in the half court...they just make it really difficult for you to get to the basket," Duke associate head coach Jeff Capel said during his radio show Wednesday night. "They're incredibly sound fundamentally and they're connected—one guy does something, another guy has his back, and obviously they're well-coached. They make it really difficult to get a clean look, so when they do get a clean look, you have to be able knock those shots down."
The Cavaliers (20-4, 9-3 in the ACC) rank 10th in basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy's defensive efficiency metric, and have taken their efforts on that end of the floor to an entirely new level of late. Virginia enters Saturday's game riding a seven-game winning streak, and has not allowed an opponent to score more than 50 points in its last four contests.
It took Duke most of the second half to figure out the Cavaliers' scheme a year ago, but the Blue Devils closed the game with scores on 14 of their last 15 possessions and outscored Virginia 14-0 in fast-break points.
"One of the things we had success with them last year was getting out in transition—that was a point of emphasis when we played, but we know that's something that they're going to try to take away," Capel said.
The Cavaliers' unwillingness to push the ball in last year's game reflects their preference for grind-it-out basketball on both ends of the floor. They score just 71.4 points per game—219th-most in the nation—but that figure is deceiving, because Virginia simply slows the game down and limits possessions. Bennett's squad ranks 11th in Pomeroy's offensive efficiency metric.
Brogdon's 17.7 points per game and 87.3 percent clip at the charity stripe are team-bests, and the graduate student can score from anywhere on the floor. Perrantes makes the offense go with a team-high 95 assists, but is also the ACC's most lethal 3-point shooter at 53.4 percent. Gill—like Brogdon a fifth-year veteran—provides interior scoring and physicality, and will present a stiff test for Duke center Marshall Plumlee.
"They're very methodical, like a machine to be honest with you. They run their stuff, they run it over and over—they're a team that wears you down," Capel said. "They don't try to do things they can't do—their offense is very simple yet very effective, and they're really good at it."
For Duke (18-6, 7-4) to pick up a second straight win against a top-20 conference foe, the Blue Devils will have to clamp down on defense, because points could be at a premium on the other end. Capel called the team's first-half effort against the Cardinals Monday—when Louisville shot 31.3 percent from the floor—some of Duke's best defense of the season.
The Blue Devils got contributions from all seven players who saw time Monday, another key to Saturday's game against a Virginia squad with nine players who contribute significant minutes. Plumlee scored eight points to go with his 10 rebounds, Luke Kennard added 11 points off the bench to complement the two-headed perimeter attack of sophomore Grayson Allen and freshman Brandon Ingram. If the Cavaliers are able to shut off the usual penetration lanes for that duo, Duke may have to rely on the long ball yet again Saturday and strap itself in for a fight on the other end.
"We have to be really strong, physically and mentally. We have to talk," Capel said. "In the last couple weeks, especially the last three games, we've shown signs of becoming a tougher basketball team."
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