In winning their fifth straight game Saturday against Clemson, the Blue Devils narrowly escaped by putting up only 64 points—a season-low.
But if Duke is to push its winning streak to six facing the stingiest defense in the nation, it might have to make a number in the low 60s stand up again.
Thanks to their recent five-game surge, the No. 12 Blue Devils now sit just one game back of first place in the ACC standings as they head to Charlottesville, Va., to take on No. 14 Virginia Wednesday at 9 p.m. at John Paul Jones Arena. Both teams sport 8-4 conference records and are currently tied for the last double-bye position in the ACC tournament, giving Wednesday’s clash no shortage of postseason implications with just six regular-season games remaining.
For a Duke squad that looked lost a few weeks ago as it dropped three of four games, the return of head coach Mike Krzyzewski has sparked a team that is now playing some of its best basketball of the season entering the home stretch.
“These last couple weeks, we’ve grown a lot,” Krzyzewski said after Saturday’s win. “I’m not saying we’re this great team, but we’re a team, we’re getting better and we’ve been really very tough. We’ve been very tough, so hopefully we can keep that going.”
As the Blue Devils (20-5, 8-4 in the ACC) have shot up the rankings in recent weeks, the Cavaliers (18-6, 8-4) havedropped three of their last five contests, including a double-overtime nail-biter to rival Virginia Tech Sunday. Allowing just 55.1 points per game, Virginia leads the nation in scoring defense and has allowed just one opponent to eclipse the 82-point mark—Duke’s average offensive output.
Head coach Tony Bennett’s pack-line defense forms the linchpin of the Cavaliers’ system, with a focus on protecting the paint that forces opponents to hoist up contested jumpers deep in the shot clock. Virginia lacks a dominant post presence to block shots, but makes up for it with a deep rotation of players well-versed in help defense at different positions. Ten Cavaliers are averaging double-digit minutes, keeping opposing offenses out of rhythm and limiting them to less than 40 percent shooting from the field and just 31.6 percent from beyond the arc.
The Blue Devils, however, have been on fire from long range recently, shooting 43.5 percent from 3-point range on nearly 25 attempts per game during their winning streak. Sophomore Luke Kennard and junior Grayson Allen have primarily fueled Duke’s perimeter hot streak, but strong stretches of play from freshmen Jayson Tatum and Frank Jackson have made the Blue Devil attack more multi-faceted than it was earlier in the season.
“[Luke] is just a dynamic player. He plays with an edge,” graduate student Amile Jefferson said. “And we have so much talent on the floor, it’s not like you can help off. You can’t help off Grayson, you can’t help off Matt [Jones], you can’t help off Jayson. It gives him space.”
Led by London Perrantes and Marial Shayok, Virginia’s backcourt is more than capable of frustrating Duke’s guards and forcing turnovers or bad shots. Allen and Kennard combined for just 15 points on 4-of-12 shooting in last year’s matchup, which the Blue Devils won 63-62 at home on Allen’s controversial buzzer-beater.
A four-year starter, Perrantes drives the Cavalier offense with his on-court savvy and knockdown shooting ability, and he leads the team with a career-high 12.6 points per game. He teams with Shayok—who was inserted into the starting lineup near the beginning of ACC play—and fellow veterans Devon Hall, Isaiah Wilkins and Jack Salt to give Virginia one of the most experienced starting lineups in the conference.
Although the Cavaliers play at a very deliberate pace and average fewer than 70 points per game, their offense is ranked 17th in basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency metric. Virginia leads the ACC with a 49.2 field goal percentage, and a bench filled with capable scorers like rookies Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome helps to offset the lack of an offensive superstar.
Two years ago, Duke used a road comeback against a previously-undefeated Cavalier squad as a springboard to the program’s fifth national championship later that spring. This year’s team has a long way to go to reach that point, but the Blue Devils are hoping to pick up another big win in Charlottesville as they continue growing together as a team.
“It’s good for our group, because we had so much adversity early on. Now it’s February and it seems like everything’s coming together,” Jefferson said. “All those things that happened to us earlier in the season have made us a stronger team. Now we have Coach back, and he’s at his highest level. He’s the best he’s been since I’ve been here. It’s great for our group to be in this position we’re in, but the league never lets up.”
Hank Tucker and Meredith Cash contributed reporting.
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