With Duke set to take on Virginia Tech in the championship game of the ACC tournament Saturday night, the Blue Zone has three keys to a Blue Devil victory:
Virginia Tech trounced North Carolina 72-59 in the semifinals Friday, and one of the key reasons for that was its lethality from distance. The Hokies shot 9-of-20 from three, ultimately amassing 27 points from 3-pointers to North Carolina’s nine. However, this doesn’t tell the whole story. The Tar Heels themselves got plenty of triple opportunities as well, but shot a measly 3-of-26 from beyond the arc.
Now, Duke can be a very good shooting team, sporting the fourth-highest 3-point percentage in the conference, but it has been relatively streaky lately. Against Miami in the semifinals, freshman forward AJ Griffin, who is shooting 48.8% from three on the season, led the way with his 4-of-6 mark, but the rest of the Blue Devils combined for just one made triple. In the quarterfinals, though, Griffin was 0-for-1, and sophomore guard Jeremy Roach stepped up late, making 5-of-10 from three.
Any of the Blue Devils can get hot, but instead of banking on that, they should lean into their ability to defend the perimeter against a sharpshooting Virginia Tech team. Duke holds its opponents to the lowest 3-point percentage in the conference, and it can use its physically imposing guards to get in the Hokies’ way and contest shots. If it can do that, a Blue Devil getting hot becomes a bonus, not a necessity to win the game.
While the Hokies effectively dominated their semifinal matchup from start to finish, one area they could neither control nor gain leverage in was scoring in the paint. North Carolina scored 61% of its points against Virginia Tech in the paint compared to the Hokies’ 39% and finished with eight more paint points despite losing by 13. The Tar Heels were overall not gelling offensively, so if Duke can be just a bit more on its game than they were, it could get myriad opportunities inside.
Furthermore, the Blue Devils were at their best against Miami when they prioritized driving to the basket over looking for the perfect shot. Seven of Paolo Banchero’s eight makes were dunks or layups, and Trevor Keels and Wendell Moore Jr.’s most clutch plays were drives in traffic. The Blue Devils have not only the size, but the skill to bully their way inside, and that style of play also has the added benefit of drawing fouls, which can give them a significant advantage like it did against Miami, when they scored 17 free-throw points to the Hurricanes’ six.
Duke pretty much has an eight-man rotation with six starting-caliber players. Lately, Roach has been the one coming off the bench of those six, but that hasn’t hindered him at all from making a consistent impact, such as when he scored 19 points Thursday against Syracuse. While a bench-scoring boost is wonderful, arguably the more consequential factor is the defensive boost.
Roach is a worker on defense, and his ability to take the floor and turn the pressure up has made it difficult for opponents to catch a break. Aside from Roach, graduate big Theo John is reliable subbing in for sophomore center Mark Williams, and he gives the Blue Devils a unique defensive option given how mobile he is for his size. Even senior forward Joey Baker, who sees the least minutes of the three, can slot in and be an effective cog in the Duke defense machine. When these players are at their best, they limit the opponent's ability to go on runs while Duke rests its headliners like Banchero and Moore.
Virginia Tech’s Darius Maddox exploded for 20 points against North Carolina, contributing to his team’s 30 total bench points and becoming the Hokies’ X-factor that game. However, if Duke can maximize its depth defensively, it can minimize the risk of falling victim to the Hokies’ own depth while also making it significantly harder for starters like All-ACC forward Keve Aluma to exploit any pressure letup.
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Sasha Richie is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.