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Virginia Cavaliers vs. Duke Blue Devils: The Big Preview

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NCAA Basketball: Clemson at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia opened a stretch of 4 games in 8 days on Sunday with a road trip to Blacksburg and Virginia Tech. Not only did the Hoos blow a lead and fall in double OT, but many of the regulars played more than 40 minutes in a sweltering Cassell Coliseum.

Unfortunately, the marathon loss at Tech was also likely the easiest game of the bunch.

Next up is a red-hot Duke team that has won 5 in a row and are beginning to look like the team that was ranked preseason #1. Coach K is back on the sidelines, Grayson Allen hasn’t tripped anybody in a while, and the highly touted rookies are finally starting to show why they were so, well, highly touted (some of them, anyway).

Surprisingly though, despite the presence of Allen and all those great freshmen, this has turned into Luke Kennard’s team. He is a front-runner for ACC player of the year, averaging 20 points and 5 rebounds per game. He’s shooting well over 50% from the field, including 46% from 3 and about 85% from the line. Kennard, of course, was no slouch on the recruiting front. He was the 24th ranked player in his class—good enough for 4th among Duke recruits that year.

Kennard is left-handed and at his best as a shooter. At 6’6”, he is capable of scoring inside off the dribble, but he’s not the strongest of players and can be frustrated by physical play. He’s a decent passer, but a scorer first and foremost.

Grayson Allen, I would think, we all know by now. He’s a prolific scorer, and was the pre-season ACC player of the year (as well as being one of the front-runners for national POY). He’s had a bit of a down year, with some minor injuries, and maybe has struggled with the expectations and the media coverage of his tripping incidents.

The obvious play for the Hoos is to put Devon Hall on Kennard, with Marial Shayok on Allen. Hall’s physical style should be a deterrent for Kennard and Shayok’s length could bother Allen.

One weakness of this Duke squad is the lack of a true point guard. The only "PG" on the roster is freshman Frank Jackson and even he is more of a scorer than a passer. Allen is almost definitely the best playmaker on the roster, and as a result he’s been playing a lot of PG. Jackson has PG size, but is still more of a SG. He’s a 38% shooter from 3 and has proven capable of getting into the lane to score. His minutes have been up and down, largely because of Duke’s other perimeter players. At this point in his career, Jackson is not a good defensive player. When he’s on the floor, he’ll likely be matched up with London Perrantes, who is going to have to make him pay on that end of the court.

Duke’s depth on the perimeter includes senior Matt Jones. Jones starts at SG with Allen at PG. Jones is a similar player to Kennard. He’s a shooter with height and enough dribble-drive skills to keep the defense honest on the perimeter. Jones is also probably the best perimeter defender on the team. It will be interesting to see who he guards. He’s not really strong enough to handle Devon Hall, so he likely starts out against Perrantes.

Duke’s inside game begins with Amile Jefferson. Another senior, Jefferson has become one of the top players in the ACC. He’s great on the boards (5th in the conference), he can score inside (4th in FG%) and he’s a very good shot blocker (also 4th). Jack Salt’s play in this game is going to be key, because he’s the only guy the Hoos have who is big enough to stop Jefferson. If Salt struggles, or gets into foul trouble, the Hoos would be in trouble.

With Salt on Jefferson, that leaves Isaiah Wilkins tasked with covering one of the two freshman phenoms. That will begin with Jayson Tatum, but Harry Giles is right behind him. Giles is the higher rated player, and is a likely top 10 pick in the NBA draft this year. Tatum is the uber-athlete, who can get out in transition and either run the break or finish from the wing. He’s a decent shooter overall but is shooting just 31% from 3. Hopefully the Hoos let him shoot from outside and defend others more closely: better Tatum shooting the 3 than one of the more lethal Blue Devil perimeter players. Tatum is also a very good defensive player, and is a particularly devastating weak-side shot blocker.

Giles is bigger and strong, but is coming off a major knee injury. He is incredibly athletic, but you can tell he isn’t all the way back. There are glimpses, but he’s still tentative and there seems to be something missing. While Giles isn’t much of a shooter, he’s a very good scorer inside. He’s an elite rebounder and shot blocker, though he has had a tendency to commit stupid fouls. He’s also a poor FT shooter. Giles has not been playing many minutes, a situation that could change at any time. He could absolutely come in and take over this game. He’s big enough that Wilkins would struggle to contain him on the boards, but he’s also too quick and athletic for Salt. Let’s hope that he’s still not ready.

That’s actually about it for the Blue Devils’ contributors. Coach K has historically kept a tight rotation and this year is nothing different. Duke’s top 7 play a lot of minutes, with Jackson and Giles as the main substitutes. They can go big with both Giles and Jefferson in the game and with Tatum at SF. Or they can go small with all 4 wings and either big man in the middle. For this game, I expect the Blue Devils to keep their lineup fairly traditional. It would force Tony to keep 2 big men on the floor, which takes away from the Hoos’ offensive ability.

Duke is a very good offensive team. The same, however, cannot be said of their defense. They rebound the ball well and they play tight defense on the perimeter (8th in the nation in 3 point shooting percentage). But they don’t force turnovers and they allow far too many easy buckets inside. The Hoos will need to take advantage of that, whether it is with dribble drives or passes. Darius Thompson could be useful in this game because he has more athleticism than any of the other Virginia perimeter players and he is a very good passer. His ability to generate turnovers could also be key, because the Hoos could definitely use some transition points in this game. Duke likes to get out and run offensively, but their transition defense isn’t great.

As always, Duke presents a tough matchup because of the level of athleticism they have. This year, they have had some struggles because of all the new faces, and likely because of the media attention. They seem to have righted the ship, which is a credit to Coach K. (Yes, he looks and acts like a weasel and we all hate him, but he is undoubtedly a great coach. Credit where credit is due.) Winning this game would be big for the Hoos, who have had some struggles of late. Losing wouldn’t be crushing, but would hurt in the fight for a top-4 ACC tournament seed and the double-bye. Right now, that should be the goal, and that means not losing at home.