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The Big Preview: Virginia looks to return to win column on the road against Duke

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NCAA Basketball: Duke at Miami-Florida Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

In what’s been a very strange season, the Virginia Cavaliers have, arguably, been a better offensive team than defensive one. Per KenPom, the offense ranks 14th nationally while the defense ranks 23rd. The reputation for great defense persists, but this is not a great defensive team. And that has been especially true against the better teams Virginia has faced.

The Hoos have lost to the three best teams they’ve faced this year in Gonzaga, Virginia Tech, and Florida State. All three of those games were away from JPJ, and two of them were not competitive. In each case, Virginia’s defense was not able to get stops and the offense simply couldn’t keep up.

One of those losses came, on the road, against Virginia Tech. The Hokies currently sit 35th in KenPom’s rankings. The Duke Blue devils are at 29th after a blowout win on the road against Wake Forest. Now Virginia gets them on the road at 8PM (Eastern) on Saturday. This is a surprisingly big game for the Hoos.

That Duke ranks 29th might be the biggest surprise during this strange season. After all, they ranked second in the preseason rankings. Currently, they are 9-8 (7-6 ACC). They lost at home to a mediocre Notre Dame team and on the road to a very bad Miami team. The icing on the cake for Duke is that star freshman Jalen Johnson has opted out of the rest of the season in order to prepare for the NBA draft. (In his defense, Johnson has been struggling with a foot injury suffered in December. He’s also been forced to play out of position this season because Duke lacks any interior presence.)

This year, Virginia has struggled mostly against big, athletic teams and especially teams with bigs who can stretch the floor. Duke is, as always, a very athletic team—Coach K gets his pick of recruits, so he gets the best athletes. But this year, especially without Johnson, they’re not too big and not too long. Seven-foot freshman Mark Williams has started the past three games, and has proven to be a pretty good presence up front, a recent change of pace as up until the end of January, he was barely getting any playing time. Three times, earlier this season, he started and didn’t play even 10 minutes. Williams will be a tough test for Jay Huff on the defensive end. But on the flip side, Huff will be a tough cover for Williams on the perimeter.

Look for a good amount of Huff on the perimeter, as Virginia tries to keep the middle of the floor open. Williams is an outstanding shot blocker and a beast on the boards. But neither of those skills will help him much if he’s guarding Huff 20 feet from the hoop.

The big matchup in this game is at the four with Duke’s Matthew Hurt and Virginia’s Sam Hauser. They are similar players. Both front court players, but both more comfortable on the perimeter offensively. Both have some defensive shortcomings, but both are very strong on the defensive glass. There is a good chance that whichever of these two has a better game will lead his team to victory.

This was the opening seconds of the game against Wake Forest. This isn’t bad defense, but Hurt’s length and that high release make him tough to stop when the shots are dropping.

Hurt leads the Blue Devils in three point attempts, makes and percentage. Three other Duke players attempt at least three treys per game, but only freshman SG D.J. Stewart makes even 35% of those attempts. Moore (29%) and freshman PG Jeremy Roach (24%) should both probably stop shooting the three. Or maybe they should stop after this game.

Hurt was the 11th ranked recruit in the nation in last year’s incoming class (by ESPN). Fellow sophomore Wendell Moore was 22nd. That duo returning was a big part of why Duke ranked so high in the pre-season. Coach K doesn’t normally have that type of returning talent, because they’ve all gone to the NBA.

Earlier in the season, Coach K was starting both Roach and senior PG Jordan Goldwire. Roach is a great athlete, but is really still learning the game. He’s great in the open floor, but isn’t a shooter and tends to force things. Goldwire is a better defender and better shooter and they’ll share the floor quite a bit.

Although the two PGs will play alongside each other at times, the starters on the wings are Moore and Stewart. Moore is a tremendous athlete and a beast in the open floor. But he hasn’t really developed his basketball skills enough. Stewart started the season very poorly, but he’s knocked down 47% of this threes in February and is beginning to show the promise he had coming into the season. He’ll see Reece Beekman to open the game, arguably Virginia’s best perimeter defender.

The penetration from Roach gets the defense off balance and some good passing leads to an open shot for Stewart. He’s not likely to miss that, but he’s also not likely to get that good a look against Virginia.

Stewart is also capable of getting to the rim, so Beekman can’t focus solely on the outside shots.

There are two other members of Duke’s freshman class, Jaemyn Brakefield and Henry Coleman. You may recognize Coleman’s name, he was heavily recruited by Tony Bennett out of Richmond. Coleman has barely played this season, averaging just four minutes per game. Wonder how much he would’ve played for Virginia. Brakefield has also seen limited action, but has looked good when he’s played. He can shoot (10/25 40%), he’s 6’8” and he’s a strong defender. He’ll get stronger and may be a beast next season.

This Duke team doesn’t play as fast as the past few, in part because they haven’t been able to consistently get stops. It’s hard to run off made baskets and teams are shooting the ball very well against Duke. Opponents have knocked down almost 38% of their threes against the Blue Devils. UNC, who Virginia saw last week, can’t shoot. But they knocked down 10/15 in their win at Cameron Indoor. That is a good sign for a Virginia team that is at its best when knocking down outside shots.

Going to see a lot of pick and roll or pick and pop from the Blue Devils.

This is actually Duke showing two screens for Wendell Moore handling the ball. He has the option to go off either screen. This one ends with an open look for Hurt. But Williams is a strong pick and roll man.

Adding Hurt and Moore to the number two ranked freshman class in the nation made for a lot of hype. Maybe it’s the strangeness of the pandemic season or maybe the hype was unwarranted, but this is one of the worst Duke teams of the past 30 years. They have also won two in a row, on the road, in convincing fashion. They seem to be defending better and knocking down threes at a higher clip. If they knock down those outside shots against Virginia, it could be a long night for Wahoo fans. But if Virginia plays up to their ability on the defensive end, they should be able to come away with a win.