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Duke men's basketball hopes to continue defensive renaissance in road test vs. Hokies

The Blue Devils' last game against Virginia Tech started their streak of holding four straight ACC opponents to fewer than 60 points.
The Blue Devils' last game against Virginia Tech started their streak of holding four straight ACC opponents to fewer than 60 points.

With two games remaining in the regular season, a lengthy winning streak and a healthy roster at last, the Blue Devils seem to be clicking at just the right time.

No. 5 Duke will head to Blacksburg, Va., to take on Virginia Tech Monday at 7 p.m. at Cassell Coliseum and look to win its sixth straight game before the Blue Devils turn their attention toward their regular-season finale against North Carolina. Duke can clinch a double bye in the ACC tournament with a win, but the Hokies—caught in a logjam with several other conference teams—will be fighting hard to improve their own seeding.

Saturday night, star freshman forward Marvin Bagley III returned to the floor after missing four games and showed no signs of rust, as he scored 19 points to lead the team in scoring in a 60-44 rout of Syracuse. Finally overcoming a nagging knee sprain, Bagley was excited to get back to contributing and showing his critics how important he is to the Blue Devils.

"When I checked in I was just focused on the game," Bagley said following the win. "I was anxious to get in there finally after the last two weeks just sitting out so it was great to finally get back out there."

Virginia Tech (20-9, 9-7 in the ACC) is looking to rebound from a disappointing Saturday loss to Louisville at home, a team which Duke demolished 82-56 just three days earlier. In the teams' last meeting two weeks ago, the Blue Devils dismantled the Hokies 74-52 in Durham.

With Bagley sidelined, senior Grayson Allen led the team with 25 points, and freshman Wendell Carter Jr. contributed 13 points and 13 rebounds. Duke’s defense was dominant, holding keeping all but one of the Hokies' players under 10 points. 

During Bagley’s absence, the Blue Devils (24-5, 12-4) fared better than anyone could have expected, dominating Virginia Tech and Louisville at home and earning a hard-fought road victory at No. 15 Clemson. 

The story of the past few weeks, however, has been Duke’s defensive renaissance, seemingly eliminating what many saw as the team’s greatest weakness. 

The Blue Devils have held their last four opponents to 52, 57, 56 and 44 points, a far cry from the 82 they allowed against North Carolina and the 81 they surrendered in a loss to St. John’s at the beginning of February. During that four-game span, Duke has forced an impressive 13.8 turnovers per game. The Blue Devils will look to maintain that same defensive intensity Monday night, but a grueling stretch of three games in six days will make their task a difficult one.

“Our team is really tired,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said Saturday. “When you get to this point of the year, everybody’s beat up and everyone’s played 25, 27 games, and conference is so difficult.”

Virginia Tech has proven its worth against some of the ACC’s top teams with wins against North Carolina, Virginia and, most recently, Clemson. As Bagley continues to reintegrate into the lineup, he and Allen will look to be able to play up to their potential at the same time. 

In early February, Allen struggled, scoring just seven points against the Red Storm and nine against the Tar Heels.  But in the next four games with Bagley out, the senior guard scored 23.8 points per game and shot the ball exceptionally well from deep. 

When the big man returned to the lineup Saturday, Allen’s shot suffered again, as he scored just six points. As the team gears up to make a run in the ACC tournament and beyond, its two biggest stars need to be able to maximize their impact simultaneously.

Despite the excitement surrounding the looming regular season finale and postseason, Krzyzewski’s squad is not overlooking its next opponent. With three players averaging between 12.8 and 13.8 points per game, Virginia Tech’s balanced attack will test the Blue Devils, who cannot afford to let their guard down on defense.

“We know they’re going to be ready. They’re going to be a different team, a more active and energetic team, and we’re going to have to show up and be ready to play,” Allen said. “It’s important that we recover and get ready for that. Once we take care of business there, we can take a deep breath, take a day off and then get ready for UNC.”


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