The No. 4 Virginia Cavaliers had a chance to pick up a huge road win in the ACC against No. 1 Duke on Saturday evening, but fell just short 72-70. It was Virginia’s first loss of the season and their first ACC road loss since the end of the 2017 season.
There’s a lot to takeaway from the first of (at least) two matchups with the Blue Devils, so let’s get to it.
Three point shooting was...bad
Virginia doesn’t live by the three and die by the three, but their cold shooting from outside was the difference in the game today. Three pointers made up 39% of Virginia’s shooting attempts and 35% of its points heading into the game with Duke. Against the Blue Devils, they were 32% of the Cavaliers’ attempts, and just 13% of its points. That’s...tough.
For the most part, especially in the second half, the Hoos got good looks at three. It was more a function of missing shots than Duke’s defense stopping them, but the Blue Devils did a solid job of making ball movement difficult for Virginia. Despite Duke’s length and athleticism, players often got wide-open looks at the basket that they couldn’t (but normally) make. Duke went into a 2-3 zone in the second half, daring the Hoos to convert those outside shots.
To Virginia’s credit, they didn’t jack up or force threes just for the sake of taking them. Kyle Guy (2-for-7), Ty Jerome (1-for-5), and De’Andre Hunter (0-for-2) took open shots, but just couldn’t convert. All three finished in double-digit scoring, driving the lane and working Duke’s interior defense. Despite struggling from three, Virginia shot 53% from the floor for the game and 78% from two-point range in the game against a top-five KenPom defense. That’s nothing to scoff at. On top of that, even with 42 points in the paint, Duke only blocked one shot (and that one went right back to Guy who missed a three).
It’s just one loss
...and not a bad one. Considering the above, taking the No. 1 team with the likely top-3 NBA Draft picks to the wire on their home court (where they rarely lose, let alone back-to-back games) is nothing to shake your head at. If Virginia hits a few more threes, they likely win the game. Virginia wasn’t going to go undefeated, and this isn’t the end of the world.
Part of me got a little nervous immediately after the game. If it only takes cold shooting from outside to lose, then what does that mean for a one-game setting like the tournament? However, you have to take comfort in the fact that the offense wasn’t the issue and this isn’t a situation like that game. As mentioned before, the Hoos were converting from two and finished with a 1.11 points per possession mark. That’s going to beat a lot of teams, especially those not named Duke.
Duke causes a lot of people undeniable matchup problems. Most of the time, Virginia can let one guy get his and focus on shutting down the rest. Well, you can’t do that with both Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. That duo combined for 57 points on 21 made field goals and went 14-for-25 from the free throw line. That’s hard to beat.
Virginia can learn a lot from this game. Rebounding and figuring out if there’s a way to defend down low without fouling (whether or not they were all actually fouls) will be big going into the February 9th matchup.
Depth is proving to be better than expected
There are some that will wring their hands and have expressed annoyance with Coach Bennett’s substitution patterns, but what has become clear is there isn’t as much of a drop-off between the bench and starters as we may have expected pre-season. Braxton Key is rounding into form and had 11 points on 2-for-3 shooting and a 7-for-8 performance from the line to go with six rebounds.
Kihei Clark played more than maybe some anticipated, but made good decisions and would have had more assists if the outside shooters had been able to convert. His take to the lane was perfect, minus the unlucky rim out at the end of the layup.
Jay Huff is clearly the discussion point for a lot of fans, and he’s showing that he’s developing into a player that can be a real X-factor for the Hoos going forward. Foul trouble in the first half kept him on the bench. Would I have liked to see him a little more down the stretch? Sure. However, getting stops was the issue for the Hoos as they allowed Duke to shoot 63% from the field in the second half, so it’s understandable Jack Salt was in to try and prevent some of that. On the flip side, the offense wasn’t where Virginia needed the most help, so it’s not unbelievable that Huff didn’t see more time.
Regardless, there’s a clearly established rotation of eight players, all of which I trust and can do important things for the Hoos. That’s a good thing.
Virginia is Really Good
In my estimation, that was a game between the two best teams in the country. Two heavyweights dishing bodyblows and bouncing back with counterpunches. The Cavaliers showed they can hang with anyone, even on a night when their shots weren’t falling and all the intangibles seemed to be going Duke’s way.
Last night was a tough look for the “Virginia is boring” crowd, and despite the loss, that game showed the Hoos belong. Virginia, which held steady at No. 1 in KenPom (No. 3 Offense, No. 2 Defense), maintained their poise and fought until the end.
I’ll entertain the discussion of a Gonzaga or Tennessee or Michigan as the No. 1 team in the land (and I expect Tennessee to take over No. 1 on Monday), but I think we saw the top dogs last night. Lucky for us (maybe) and all of college basketball (definitely) there’s a chance we get that matchup two or three more times this season.