And so it begins.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final non-conference slate is behind him. It featured a plethora of blowout wins, two ranked victories over then-No. 10 Kentucky and No. 1 Gonzaga, and Duke’s brief reign atop the AP Poll spoiled by a road loss to Ohio State. The incredible freshman class won four ACC Freshman of the Week honors, two by Paolo Banchero and one each by Trevor Keels and A.J. Griffin. Now, it’s time for the hard part.
Duke opens up conference play as Virginia Tech comes to Cameron Indoor Stadium. Hungry and full of potential, the Hokies will be determined to prove themselves as a true contender in the ACC against the frontrunner Blue Devils. Here are five things to look for.
Drain the threes
Duke has been inconsistent from behind the arc this season. Its floor: going 1-for-12 in the season opener against Kentucky. Its ceiling, however? High. Against each of South Carolina State and Appalachian State, the Blue Devils made 15 three-pointers, shooting at least 50% in both games. Countless players have the ability to shoot; it’s just a matter of who. Wendell Moore Jr. made all four of his three-point attempts against Appalachian State, and has two made threes in five other games. Keels has shot 40% from downtown in in two of his last four games. Griffin has also emerged as a player to watch; he made 3-of-4 shots from distance against South Carolina State and had an impressive 4-of-6 showing against Lafayette in November.
The Hokies are not without their fair share of three-point firepower; guard Hunter Cattoor is averaging 44.4% on 3-point attempts. In Virginia Tech’s most recent matchup against Saint Bonaventure, Cattoor sunk all five of his threes. The Hokies as a whole averages 40% on its long shots, but in its previous ACC loss to Wake Forest, they sunk under 30%. Duke associate head coach Jon Scheyer said of the matchup, “they put five guys on the floor that can shoot it.”
Both teams have players who can change the game from the arc. Will it be Cattoor continuing his hot streak, or one of Duke’s myriad of capable shooters?
No question about it: Virginia Tech’s star is Keve Aluma. The 6-foot-9 forward is an offensive powerhouse and a rebounding fiend, having already recorded two double-doubles. On Aluma’s offensive capabilities, Scheyer said “they have a player in Aluma who they can throw the ball to and he can really create offense for them.” His size, talent, and physicality make him tough to match up against. Tasked with that difficult duty will be the Blue Devil big men: Mark Williams, Theo John and Banchero.
Williams and Banchero both entered the season with high expectations. They have not disappointed. Banchero’s physical presence, offensively and defensively, is not to be ignored; he makes plays and forces turnovers on every inch of the court. Williams, though, will be the difference maker. The center has at least three inches of height on every Virginia Tech starter. He is a blocking machine, averaging 3.1 a game. The height advantage means Williams has the opportunity to affect more shots in the paint and grab more rebounds. On the offensive end, if the Blue Devils can get him the ball in the paint, then he can’t be stopped.
If there is one thing the Hokies are good at, it is forcing turnovers.
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“They’re actually one of the leaders in the country in terms of turnovers. It’s not necessarily with steals, but it’s turnovers that they force you into with how they close on the ball so quickly on drives in congested areas” said Scheyer on Virginia Tech’s defense.
Luckily for the Hokies, Duke could start sloppily. The Blue Devils tend to recover before the first half is over, but the weakness is there, if Virginia Tech wishes to exploit it. Against Campbell, the slow start led to a 10-point Duke deficit. While the Blue Devils came back and were leading within minutes, it still showed that they are not immortal, and they can be outplayed in stretches.
Against Ohio State, this sloppy play came in the form of fouls. The team committed 23 fouls and saw Jeremy Roach, Banchero, Williams and Moore all play with four fouls, while John fouled out. Though the Buckeyes were not very effective from the line, there were unnecessary points given up, and the loss of John’s physical presence was felt. When the Blue Devils are sloppy, they are vulnerable. Clean play, on both ends of the court and in transition, will be key for a Duke victory. It’s absence would be Virginia Tech’s biggest opportunity.
As effective as the starters are, a hot bench player can turn an entire game around. The Blue Devils have just that in John, Griffin and Joey Baker. John’s impact can be felt on and off the court. He is a menace on the court, key in grabbing rebounds and affecting shots. He also, however, is important as a teammate and leader.
“The thing that’s been so great about Theo is what a great teammate he’s been... He’s always in Mark's ear, pushing him telling him to keep going, to get better,” Scheyer said.
Griffin has slowly but surely emerged as a key player in the Blue Devils’ rotation. A preseason injury set him back, but he is finally coming into his own. His shooting ability and power gives him an offensive edge, while his strength and physicality drive his defensive presence.
“When AJ is on the floor, we look different as a team. He just brings a physical presence, his shooting and scoring ability, and I think you guys have had a chance to see this past week how good of a passer he is,” Scheyer said.
Griffin has quickly become an integral part of the rotation. No matter who is on the court for Duke, the Hokies will have their work cut out for them.
Rebound, rebound, rebound
Early in the season, it was evident that Duke’s rebounding was lacking. The Blue Devils have been outrebounded in six of their 11 games so far. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“Our guys, they’ve taken responsibility. They know it’s something we need to improve on,” Scheyer said. “For us as a coaching staff, we need to do a better job of coaching it and teaching it. That’s something hopefully tomorrow night, we show some improvement in that area.”
Rebounding is a shared weakness between the Hokies and the Blue Devils. Virginia Tech is only averaging 34.2 rebounds per game, while Duke averages 38.2. Banchero, John and Williams, though have the size and strength to overpower anyone. However, for the Hokies, forward Justyn Mutts and Aluma are not to be underestimated. Mutts himself averages over seven rebounds a game.
“Mutts and Aluma, they go to the boards. If a shot goes up and you don’t put a body on them, they’re going to make you pay with it, not only for put backs but for kick-out three’s,” Scheyer said.
The Hokies physicality and drive will put pressure on Duke to address its flaws and step up.