Every season fans highlight this game. As the season has progressed, the anticipation has built considerably, especially now that the red hot Virginia Cavaliers take on a Duke Blue Devils team that hasn’t quite turned out to be the juggernaut everyone thought they’d be.
To say that this is a contrast in styles would be an understatement. Duke has the second most efficient offense in the country (behind Villanova). Virginia has the most efficient defense in the nation (by a large margin). Virginia’s offense is good, but not great. Duke’s defense is just not great. Duke plays at the 39th fastest tempo in the nation, with only a handful of major conference teams ahead of them. Virginia is the single slowest team in the nation. So most likely, the team that controls tempo and plays their style of basketball will come out on top.
Things aren’t that simple of course. Virginia has shown in can beat an up-tempo team on the road (Virginia Tech, VCU), as well as lose to one (WVU). Duke has played a couple of slower games, and come out on top, but they’ve lost fast paced games. Both of their losses came on the road, and their two slowest games came against a bad team (Pitt, twice).
Despite their two losses, Duke is almost undoubtedly the most talented team in the nation. From Grayson Allen to Marvin Bagley, the entire Duke team is five-star recruits. For comparison, Virginia does not have a single 5-star guy. But, as Tony Bennett has shown, talent and star ratings isn’t everything. Duke is the second youngest team in America with almost all of their minutes are going to freshmen, outside of Allen.
Let’s start with the best of those freshmen, Bagley. Bagley is a lock at this point for ACC Rookie of the Year, and probably the national freshman of the year. He’s also in the running for national POY (but let’s be honest that’s probably going to Trae Young). He’s averaging 22 points and 11.5 rebounds per game, plus a block and a steal. He’s shooting 34% from three (not bad for a 6’11” big man) and 61% overall. Bagley can play down low (see below for a clip of him taking on 7-foot Dural Moore in the post), but he’s more at home facing up either in the high post (second video below) or along the baseline. He’s also a beast on the offensive glass and gets to the line a lot, but he’s not a particularly good FT shooter. Another weakness is defense. He’s a good shot blocker, but not a particularly attentive defender. He loses focus on that end quite a bit. Isaiah Wilkins has proven up to the task guarding some if the best big men in the ACC, but Bagley will be his toughest task yet. Bagley’s size will allow him to shoot over Wilkins, and he may also be quicker than UVA’s defensive wizard. Bagley is also left-handed, meaning a slightly different challenge for Wilkins.
The Hoos have spent a lot of time recently going small with Wilkins at the 5 and DeAndre Hunter at the 4. Can Hunter guard Bagley? I don’t know. Hunter definitely has a quickness advantage, but he’s giving up a lot of size. Still, a bigger question might be if Wilkins can guard Duke big man Wendell Carter. Carter is big and strong (6’10, 270) and beast down low. He can rebound and he can score in the post, but he can also face up and he’s made 11-for-23 from beyond the arc.
While the focus for the Cavaliers is on Duke’s front-court, the Blue Devil wings are very good. This starts, of course, with the trip and travel expert himself, Grayson Allen. Allen is shooting 39% from three, which is right on his career numbers. He’s also averaging 15 points per game, which is right about where he was last year. That is the biggest knock on Allen - he simply hasn’t improved very much in his four years. In fact, his sophomore year numbers are vastly superior to the past two years.
Next to Allen is Gary Trent, Jr., whose father played nine years in the NBA (fun fact: Gary has three brothers: Garyson, Grayson, and Graydon). Trent is a shooter, but he’s also a scorer. He’s 43% from three and 89% from the stripe on the season, and he can get into the lane, though at times he’s struggled to finish inside. At 6’6, 209, he’s a tough matchup for many wings. The down side for both Allen and Trent is that neither are particularly attentive defenders, much like Bagley.
Allen will play some PG, but the starter there is freshman Trevon Duval. Duval has a very quick first step, plus he’s big and explosive finishing at the rim, but he’s not a great shooter. He’s made just 27% of his threes (and just 60% of his free throws), but he’s shooting almost 50% from the field in total. He’s a capable defender, but like his teammates, focus lapses at times.
That quintet plays together a lot. Only Carter averages fewer than 30 mpg. And recently, his minutes have trended up with injuries to both Marques Bolden and Javin Delaurier. Delaurier returned and played 10 minutes in Duke’s last game against Wake Forest on Tuesday. The only other real rotation guy is Alex O’Connell. Amazingly, the 6’6 wing was only four stars. He is a deadeye shooter and also excels in transition. That’s about it though, right now, because he’s simply not strong enough to make an impact in the half-court outside of his jump-shooting.
Playing at Cameron is tough for anybody. Duke has lost five games at home in the past six seasons. The Hoos are one of the better roads teams in the nation, and as they say, “defense travels” (and so does Grayson Allen). Duke’s defense has improved over the past two weeks, though the competition may have something to do with that (two games each against Pitt and Wake, hooray unbalanced schedules). This will be a bigger test, as will upcoming matchups against UNC and Virginia Tech.
If the Hoos go to Durham and get the W, it’ll validate what they’ve done this season. It’ll make them the prohibitive favorite for the ACC regular season title. If they lose, there’ll be a lot of “told ya so” from fans and media. But, they’ll still be up a game in the conference standings and have an easier remaining schedule. Ultimately, this game is more about bragging rights and the reputations of these two teams than about anything else.
Hoos and Blue Devils tip off at 2pm and the game will be televised by CBS.