This past weekend saw the Blue Devils pick up arguably their best win of the year before plummeting to their lowest point as a team thus far in a home loss to unranked Syracuse.
Now, Duke enters Saturday’s powerhouse matchup with Virginia looking to right the ship with a signature victory ahead of a relatively calm stretch of its conference schedule.
The No. 1 Blue Devils will face undefeated No. 4 Virginia at 6 p.m. Saturday at Cameron Indoor Stadium in one of the most anticipated matchups in college basketball this season and the latest meeting in what has become one of the best rivalries in the ACC over the last four years. The Cavaliers—one of just two remaining unbeaten teams in the country—have cruised through the beginning of conference play, including impressive wins against then-No. 9 Florida State and No. 9 Virginia Tech.
The Blue Devils, meanwhile, were riding high after Cam Reddish’s buzzer-beater took down the Seminoles last week in Tallahassee, Fla. However, following Monday’s demoralizing loss and injury to starting point guard Tre Jones, Duke finds itself in a much different position from a week ago.
“Not having Tre hurts a little bit, but guys have to step up and we’re excited for the opportunity,” said junior captain Javin DeLaurier. “It’s been a hard week for us thinking about [the Syracuse game], so we’re locked in and ready for Saturday.”
Saturday’s game is just under a year removed from the previous meeting between these two teams when then-No. 2 Virginia knocked off the No. 4 Blue Devils for the first time in 23 years at Cameron Indoor. Ty Jerome knocked down a dagger three with under a minute remaining to deny Grayson Allen a chance to recreate his dramatic game-winner in Cameron two years before.
Although much of the current Blue Devils (14-2, 3-1 in the ACC) roster was not around for last year’s loss to the Cavaliers (16-0, 4-0 ACC), that game has certainly been present in many older players’ minds in the past week, particularly after Monday’s disappointing showing.
“I remember it. Anytime you lose in Cameron it hurts,” said fellow junior captain Jack White. “I don’t really need to explain it [to the young guys] after Monday.”
While the pain from last year’s loss may remain, Duke enters this game understanding it will be facing a different—and possibly even better—team than the one that cruised through the regular season last year before suffering a historic upset in the NCAA tournament.
As usual, Virginia boasts one of the best defensive teams in the country, ranking second in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.com. However, its offensive efficiency has leaped from 50th in the nation last year to fourth this year, largely because of proficiency beyond the arc. The Cavaliers rank seventh overall and second among major conference teams in 3-point percentage, trailing only rival No. 9 Virginia Tech, whom Virginia dispatched easily Monday night.
“They are a little bit different from Virginia teams of the past [in that] they’re able to put up a little bit more in terms of the scoring category,” said DeLaurier. “Their perimeter—Kyle Guy, Ty Jerome, Deandre Hunter—they’re all tremendously talented, and they’re deep.”
Controlling the Cavaliers’ offensive weapons will be even more challenging with the likely absence of Jones, who is one of the premier defenders in the country. Jones was also critical running the point and taking care of the ball in Duke’s win against then-No. 12 and undefeated Texas Tech—the lone team ranked ahead of Virginia in adjusted defensive efficiency in the country. In his place, R.J. Barrett will likely bring the ball up the court as he did during the Blue Devils’ summer tour in Canada when Jones was out recovering from a hip injury.
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“R.J. does a great job of running the show for us. He’s had experience doing that before especially in Canada, and even today in practice he did a really good job of being poised, being strong with the ball and being more of a leader,” said White. “He knows that all of us on this team have the utmost confidence in him to do that job well. But yea, it’s just going to be a little bit different.”
One benefit for the Blue Devils is the comparatively long break since Monday’s loss, time that gave them time not only to run through sets with Barrett at the point, but also to recover from an exhausting two-game, three-day stretch early in the week.
“Whenever you come into a game you can’t be tired, you can’t show the other team that you’re tired—any signs of weakness, it’s not who we are. At the end of the day, if an environment like [Cameron] can’t get you up and about then what will,” said White. “[However] it’s part of the game; guys are going to get fatigued especially in a physical kind of fight like on Monday.”
Saturday, however, Duke will have the benefit of nearly a full week of rest and a raucous home crowd to play in front of. ESPN’s College Gameday will return to Durham for a record ninth time ahead of the evening’s matchup, which will give an early indicator of who is going to pace a top-heavy ACC this season and give the young Blue Devil team a chance to make a statement win.
“Good thing for us is we’ve already played in big games. So it shouldn’t be too hard to tell [the young guys] to come in and treat it like any other game, especially because this group is so mature,” said DeLaurier. “They’ve been battle tested, and we’re going to have a big fight coming our way Saturday at 6 p.m.”