Prior to Tuesday’s double-overtime loss at Wake Forest, Duke was in the driver’s seat for the top seed in the ACC. With a defeat at Virginia, the Blue Devils will fall to fourth.
Can Duke flip the script on their road woes at John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Va.? Here are five things to watch for when the Blue Devils and Cavaliers take the court Saturday at 6 p.m:
Who will win the first five minutes?
Setting the tone out of the gate on the road is always crucial. Virginia enters this weekend’s contest with five consecutive wins and a victory against Duke would go a long way to bolster its resume come March. The fans and players will be ready, but can the Blue Devils snap a streak of dreadful starts?
Duke has not won the first five minutes of an ACC road game once this season, and it has been costly. The Blue Devils have constantly put themselves in early holes, providing life to the opposing environment. Virginia is the best ACC team Duke will face on the road this season and an early deficit will be hard to recover from against the reigning national champions’ packline defense.
“We’ve got to learn from [Wake Forest], we’ve got to come back and know that we can’t start a game like that. We can’t just basically give them the game at the beginning,” Justin Robinson said after Tuesday’s defeat.
Can Carey stay on the floor?
Getting to the rim will be difficult for the Blue Devils against the nation’s fourth most efficient defense according to KenPom.com, which is why Vernon Carey Jr.'s presence will be especially crucial. The 6-foot-10 freshman leads Duke in scoring, rebounding and field goal percentage, but has not been on the court when the team has needed him most of late.
Carey has averaged four fouls over his last five games and fouled out against North Carolina and Wake Forest, leaving the Blue Devils without their biggest threat down the stretch. With points expected to come at a premium, Carey’s ability to bully his way to the bucket and slow down Virginia forward Mamadi Diakite will be key.
Will Diakite have his way?
Duke has struggled to guard stretch-fours all season and Diakite will arguably be the most talented one the Blue Devils have seen to date. 7-footer Jay Huff’s ability to space the floor as a 3-point threat will likely leave Diakite alone one-on-one in the paint. Will Duke be able to slow him down?
Diakite leads Virginia with 13.6 points and 6.7 rebounds per contest. His ability to knock down shots from long range and dominate the offensive boards could provide matchup nightmares for Javin DeLaurier and Matthew Hurt. Hurt got exploited in the second half and overtime Tuesday, and will need to stay disciplined for Duke to win the battle on the interior and Saturday’s contest.
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Slow and steady wins the race
This year’s Virginia squad is the epitome of its patented slow pace and defense-first mindset. The Cavaliers rank last in Division-I in adjusted tempo according to KenPom.com and average a dismal 57.6 points per contest. While Diakite will man the middle, Kihei Clark will be tasked with slowing down Duke’s floor general Tre Jones.
Jones and the Blue Devils will need to stay especially disciplined against the Cavaliers. Poor shot selection and turnovers like the ones that cost Duke in the final minute Tuesday will be especially painful against Virginia. In order for the Blue Devils to snap out of their funk, they’ll need to stay poised, disciplined and make sure to utilize all 30 seconds of the shot clock when necessary.
What’s at stake?
After Florida State beat Louisville Monday, Duke had a clear path to the top seed in the ACC. Following Tuesday’s loss, however, the Blue Devils dropped to third and remain just a game ahead of the Cavaliers in the conference standings with three games remaining.
Duke enters Saturday’s contest a game behind the Seminoles and a loss would all but eliminate the Blue Devils chances for the top seed in Greensboro this March. That is crucial because the winner will likely have to play just one top-15 team to win the ACC title, while the second through fourth seeds would need to go through two—if the top seeds win out.