Does it get any better than this? The Hoos take on the Blue Devils of Duke tonight, with an NCAA bid hanging in the balance. Let's do this.
Duke comes to Charlottesville tonight in what may just be the biggest matchup of the century. Okay, that may be hyperbole, but this one is quite important to the Wahoos' NCAA hopes. A win would put Virginia in excellent position to make a second straight NCAA tournament, while a loss would mean a giant missed opportunity and a return to the heart of the bubble.
The game tips off at 9PM and will be broadcast by ESPN.
JPJ will be rocking, as Wahoo fans prepare for the team's biggest home game in years. The building has provided a strong home court advantage this season, with UVA winning 15 straight games in Charlottesville. On the other hand, Duke is just 4-3 in road games; their best victory away from Durham this year is over Florida State, and they squeaked by BC and Wake Forest in the final seconds.
As the wise Marshall Mathers put it, the Hoos only get one shot, do not miss their chance to blow, this opportunity comes once in a lifetime (season). Here are the matchups to expect, and some keys to the game to watch out for...as well as some bonus pre-game inspiration.
Projected Duke starting lineup:
G - Quinn Cook (6-1, 175)
G - Seth Curry (6-2, 185)
G - Rasheed Sulaimon (6-4, 185)
F - Josh Hairston (6-7, 240)
F - Mason Plumlee (6-10, 235)
Jontel Evans will start at the the point and cover his counterpart Quinn Cook, an athletic guard who dangerous from behind the arc, where he shoots 41%, but also off the dribble. Evans should have his hands full, though he has handled similar opponents in the past We also know that Akil Mitchell will have primary duty on Mason Plumlee, though he'll have plenty of help from Coach Bennett's aggressive double-teams. Duke's propensity to shoot the three-ball means that Akil's ability to defend Plumlee one-on-one (and not leave shooters open) is important.
If Hairston starts as expected (he has been in the starting lineup 3 of Duke's last 4 games), Justin Anderson should have a favorable matchup; after being tasked with guarding Alex Len and Kenny Kadji, Justin should have the physicality to give Hairston fits. Paul Jesperson's length and ability to move through screens makes him the likely pick to guard Seth Curry, with Joe Harris sticking on Rasheed Sulaimon, though we are likely to see defensive changes at the wing spots throughout.
Overall, this is likely the type of game in which both fan-bases could claim that their s quad has a favorable matchup; the two teams start similar lineups, with neither having a glaring deficiency in guarding the other's weapons.
Keys to the game:
1. Three point shooting
UVA is first in conference play in three-point shooting and second in three-point defense, while Duke is second in ACC play in 3PT% and first in three-point defense. Something's gotta give.
The Blue Devils will likely follow other ACC teams' leads and lock down on Joe Harris around the perimeter. For the Hoos, the three-point shooting potential of Paul Jesperson, Evan Nolte, and Taylor Barnette will be an x-factor. When a couple of these shooters get hot, teams have had little chance of stopping the Hoos offensively.
While UVA's offense is screen heavy, Duke will look to get open looks from three by collapsing the Packline off the dribble and kicking out to an open shooter or passing out of post-doubles. This season, UVA has typically successfully rotated out successfully to contest three-pointers; however, Duke is more proficient at this part of the game than the typical college team. Seth Curry will get some open shots because of his deep range, but UVA must execute with precision to prevent other good lucks.
2. Jontel Evans
As Jontel goes, the Wahoo offense goes. This may seem surprising, as Evans is far from UVA's most prolific offensive player; however, his play is vital to the flow of the Virginia offense. When the senior guard has more assists than turnovers, the Hoos are 9-1 in ACC play, the lone loss a last-second defeat at Miami. Against Georgia Tech he had an 8:0 assist-TO ratio, and it was 7:1 at Miami. However, when Evans's turnover total is greater than or equal to his assist number, his team is 0-4, including a 5:6 ratio in UVA's loss at Chapel Hill.
There has been a very distinct "Good" Jontel and "Bad" Jontel this year. If Evans plays within the flow of the game, taking what the defense gives him without trying to do too much, the offense will run much better. Fortunately, the senior point guard has been steadily returning to form since missing the early part of the season with a foot injury. The Hoos badly need Good Jontel against Duke.
3. Frontcourt Foul Trouble
Virginia's biggest weakness on both sides of the ball has been getting to and keeping opponents from the free-throw line. UVA is dead last in ACC play at getting to the FT line, and is 11th in defensive FTA/FGA. UNC took 30 free-throws in defeating the Hoos last weekend. If Duke does this tonight, they will win the game. The Hoos cannot afford to allow such a large deficit in these chances for free points.
Additionally, the referees have never been Wahoo fan favorites in games against the Carolina teams; UVA's 2012 game with UNC was arguably stolen away from the Hoos. With Virginia's lack of front-court depth, Akil Mitchell cannot afford to find himself in foul trouble. It is also important that Darion Atkins and Mike Tobey, both slowly recovering from their own unique maladies, give their team strong minutes in whatever playing time they could muster. Plumlee will be difficult to handle if UVA's sole healthy big man gets stuck on the bench.
My glasses are too orange and too blue to give a prediction credible enough to report here. Here are the thoughts of some more objective systems out there -
Ken Pomeroy: Duke 65-64 (48% UVA Win Probability)
Sagarin: Duke by 1.7 (44% UVA WP)
Vegas: Pick 'Em. (O/U 129)
UVA beats Duke in 2007 on Sean Singletary buzzer beater:
Hopefully Coach Bennett queues these up tonight in the locker room:
Also, I am leaving this here, hoping to prod somebody to put together a similar post-game montage:
Go Hoos. Beat Duke.