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Film room: Duke men's basketball will have its hands full with Virginia's suffocating defense

Matthew Hurt dominated the Wolfpack from start to finish.
Matthew Hurt dominated the Wolfpack from start to finish.

On Saturday, Duke men’s basketball faces the team that will likely be its toughest test for the remainder of the regular season—Virginia. Still on the outside looking in for NCAA tournament hopes, the Blue Devils can scarcely afford any more losses down the stretch. Even though this matchup will be difficult, a win over the No. 7 Cavaliers could make a convincing argument to bring Duke back into tournament conversation. 

Virginia’s stifling defense 

Over the past several years, the Cavaliers have made their name as a defensive powerhouse, regularly holding their opponents to less than 50 points. Even in this bizarre year, Virginia’s defense has remained a constant threat, holding opponents to 59.9 points per game. With the shot-blocking ability of Jay Huff inside, combined with the quickness and tenacity of guard Kihei Clark, the Cavaliers have a lot of talent on the defensive end. But what takes this team to the next level is head coach Tony Bennett’s defensive system. 

On every screen, Virginia’s big man (often Huff) steps out into the ball-handler’s lane to slow down the flow of offense. Meanwhile, the rest of the defense is prepared to help make up for the double team. In almost every iteration of this simple offensive play, Virginia’s opponents lose time on the shot clock with no movement closer to the basket. Subsequently, the opposing offense ends up frequently taking contested threes deep into the shot clock. 

If the Cavaliers’ opponents are able to get the ball into the post, the ball is often swarmed with an immediate double team, often forcing the ball out of the paint. On the other hand, quick passes can stay ahead of the help defense and lead to easy buckets. In fact, in the vast majority of games, the opponent’s forwards tally the bulk of the points against Virginia, as the guards are rarely able to create inside the three-point line.

Virginia’s big men can stretch the floor 

Throughout this season, much of the Cavaliers’ success on offense has come through their big men, specifically Huff and Sam Hauser. The duo averages a combined 27.7 points per game, with Huff shooting at above 60% from the field and Hauser not far behind at a 51% clip. 

The Cavaliers’ sharp shooting and quick passing give Virginia frequent good looks such as this Hauser three. 

The numbers that really impress, though, are their 3-point percentages. Standing at 7-foot-1, Huff has managed to shoot 45% from three, while the 6-foot-8 Hauser shoots 44% from beyond the arc. Their shooting abilities, combined with guard Clark’s playmaking, allows the Cavaliers to score in waves and overwhelm their opponents. 

In this clip, Clark's quickness inside and smart passing creates plays for his teammates, a major feature of the Cavaliers’ offense.

Virginia’s inside out offense often leads to open threes for their big men such as this Huff 3-pointer.


To get past Virginia’s defense, Duke will have to use quick ball movement and strong post play. With Virginia's struggles against forwards, sophomore Matthew Hurt could be a key player for the Blue Devils. For Duke to get this win Saturday, it's going to have to contain Virginia’s forwards. Overall, Saturday’s game will go to the team who can control the pace of play, and only time will tell who that might be.


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