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Three points: Paint presence of key importance as Duke men's basketball takes on Virginia

Freshman guard Trevor Keels notched eight assists in Duke's Feb. 7 loss to Virginia.
Freshman guard Trevor Keels notched eight assists in Duke's Feb. 7 loss to Virginia.

It’s crunch time for Duke, which begins its slate of three consecutive away games Wednesday against Virginia. After a big revenge win against Florida State in head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s penultimate home game, the Blue Zone brings three keys to a Blue Devil redemption victory against the Cavaliers:

Protect the paint

Duke’s heartbreaking last-second loss to Virginia earlier this month was disappointing for a number of reasons, not least the Blue Devils’ struggles to use their immense size to their advantage. Sophomore center Mark Williams put up 16 points and four rebounds, sure, but almost fouled out in the process and saw the bench for much of the second period because of it. The Cavaliers’ duo of Kadin Shedrick and Francisco Caffaro amassed 12 total rebounds and dominated the bucket throughout the contest, condemning Duke to sloppy shots beyond the arc and fruitless drives inside of it.

If the Blue Devils want to avenge their earlier loss and set the record straight in Krzyzewski’s last trip to Charlottesville, Va., they will need to right that ship. Williams, Paolo Banchero and Theo John have the physical tools to outmuscle and outjump Virginia’s bigs; it’s just a matter of getting the job done. Encouragingly, that trio combined for 16 rebounds and 29 points in Saturday’s win against Florida State, so it is entering Wednesday’s trip in perhaps the best form it can. The Cavaliers’ dominance in the paint was Duke’s downfall in Durham. If the Blue Devils can reverse that script, the result should take care of itself.

Play the extra pass

When these teams met Feb. 7 in Durham, Duke registered 14 assists. On Saturday against Florida State, it notched 25. Wendell Moore Jr., Trevor Keels and Jeremy Roach were responsible for seven, eight and five of those, respectively, and illustrated perhaps the most impressive element of this Blue Devil team on the way: its selflessness.

Roach alone hit 30 assists in just four games earlier in 2022, Moore put up 10 dimes for the program’s fifth-ever triple-double against Army in November and Keels has dished out 76 assists this season despite an injury that saw him sidelined for nearly two weeks. Perhaps obviously, Duke plays its best basketball when the widest varieties of its players see the basketball, and these three players have embodied that. The Cavaliers made life difficult in the paint for the Blue Devils in Durham and forced deep shots to break them down, so if Duke’s talented playmakers can play the extra pass and cut through the lines of a tight defense without forcing the deep shot, its most talented scorers will have a field day.

Sharpshooting at the stripe

The Blue Devils went 18-of-22 from the line against Virginia at home, making double the shots the Cavaliers—who went 5-of-9 from the stripe—even attempted. It’s a bit of a moot point to say that free throws were important then since Duke lost that game, but it certainly isn’t now. It's unlikely that it was Virginia head coach Tony Bennett’s master plan to foul the Blue Devils to break up their momentum, but the Cavaliers made the most of their opportunities and showed how crucial they can be to keeping themselves in a tight game.

Virginia has struggled this season, but it more than gave Duke a game last time out. Free throws kept the Blue Devils in the contest then and could again on the road Wednesday, should the home team make it so. It’s hard to call hits from the charity stripe a strategy, but they can be a difference, and should the Blue Devils capitalize on these opportunities, chances are high they’ll leave John Paul Jones Arena with a score-settling win and final one-up against Virginia in the Krzyzewski era.

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