Three and a half weeks and seven games after their first matchup, the Blue Devils and the Cavaliers meet again.
This time Duke will travel to Virginia’s home base at the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, Va., with tip set for 7 p.m. Thursday. Neither team has been quite successful since they last saw each other on the court, with the Blue Devils suffering five losses and the Cavaliers seeing no wins throughout this spell. The last time the two group’s played, Duke held firm for the majority of the contest until Virginia gave it a run for its money in the final quarter to win the period by eight. The Cavaliers aren’t favored to win and most recently fell by 16 points to Miami, which the Blue Devils defeated last month by nine. With Duke yearning for a victory to take back its season with four games left, will this contest be the answer?
Here are five things to look for as the Blue Devils take on the Cavaliers for its second time this season.
Gordon and Day-Wilson power duo
Graduate student Lexi Gordon and freshman Shayeann Day-Wilson have been Duke's stars lately, with the duo being Duke's top-two scorers in three of the last four games. Gordon specifically saw more success before conference play commenced, averaging 10.4 points per game before Duke's first matchup with Virginia Tech. On the flip side, Day-Wilson has remained consistent with a point per game average rivaling the numbers she had before ACC games.
Despite that, both are putting up top performances for Duke (15-9, 6-8 in the ACC). Gordon specifically has been the team's leader for each of the last four games barring Florida State, with Day-Wilson trailing closely behind in points in these contests. With the two of them establishing themselves as the Blue Devils' best current duo, there's a lot that Duke can do with them on the floor. Virginia (3-21, 0-14) won't be the Blue Devils' most formidable enemy, but it is in Duke's favor to test out more of what the two of them can do when they are playing together—especially as the ACC tournament inches closer.
Virginia’s slow start
Some say that slow and steady wins the race—but starting slow seems to be the Cavaliers most outstanding issue. In four of Virginia’s last eight contests, the group has started slow and has not been able to find its footing until the end comes close. The squad faced a slow start as it battled Duke—the team had five points in the first quarter but ended up getting 19 in the final while the Blue Devils only had 11. However, by that point in the contest, there was no way its last burst would be enough to provide a victory.
More significantly, it happened against Syracuse last Tuesday as the Cavaliers were facing a 10-point deficit in the first quarter and then scored 30 points in the final period. And even on Tuesday, the group’s most recent battle before playing Duke, Virginia had three points to Miami’s 20 in the first quarter, yet the Cavaliers would later score 17 in the last quarter.
Make more opportunities in the paint
Duke has a lot of areas that it needs to improve in to be competitive in the tournament, or to at least know what to build off in future seasons, and being a force in the key will be one of those places. The Blue Devils must improve their play in the paint—which is a space where they often have fallen short to their opponents. Even in contests that the group won, such as against Wake Forest, Duke had a 14-point deficit in the paint, or matches that were close calls such as the three-point loss to Florida State in which Duke also had a 14-point deficit. Working on making paths to the glass and setting picks for teammates is something that Duke has to better at, and with a game against a team that Duke has beat before, using those strategies against Virginia will be essential to test if the Blue Devils can improve in this department.
Continue to limit from the field
Duke is the favored team to win, and the key to keeping the status quo is putting on the same, or an even better, defensive performance as it travels to Charlottesville, Va. The last time the two teams played each other, Duke executed on defense and limited the Cavaliers to a 35% mark from the field. The Blue Devils themselves finished the game with a much more impressive 47.8% clip on the court, with the group going 22-of-46 from the field.
No consistent major threats
Though the Cavaliers have a player leading in points that rivals Duke’s Day-Wilson, they don’t have a player who has been a consistent big scorer all year. Sure, guard Amandine Toi averages 12.1 points per game, and forward Eleah Parker averages 5.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. Yet, there isn’t a consistent output from the group, and there hasn’t been a player who can take the stand on an every-game basis and give a significant scoring output. When the Cavaliers played Duke last month, the top-scoring player was guard Kayden Lawson, but she only finished having scored 10 points. Apart from combo forward Mir McLean and Toi’s scoring performances against Syracuse, with a respective 20 and 18 points recorded, having major big-point players on the court has been an issue for the team throughout the year. If the Cavaliers can’t distinguish a player to take that role, then Duke will be able to exploit this area come Thursday.
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