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Virginia vs. Duke Preview: Balancing two trade-offs key to a UVA win

A younger Malcolm Brogdon attempts to evade Duke's defensive strategy of tickling him every time he gets the ball.
A younger Malcolm Brogdon attempts to evade Duke's defensive strategy of tickling him every time he gets the ball.
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

Earlier this week, Virginia avenged an early-season loss to Virginia Tech. Now, the Hoos look to get revenge on another party spoiled.  Duke came into JPJ last season and ended UVA's pursuit of perfection; can UVA return the favor and pick up a road win of their own?

Virginia (20-4, 9-3 ACC. #2 KenPom, #7 AP) vs.  Duke (18-6, 7-4 ACC. #12 KenPom, NR AP)
4:30 PM
KenPom: Duke 70-69 (UVA 47% Win Prob). 
Vegas: Duke -2

How to Watch

The game will be televised by ESPN. ESPN subscribers only can also stream the game online, or on smartphones, tablets, and Apple TV/Amazon Fire/Chromecast/Roku through WatchESPN.

You can also listen online at Cavaliers Live.


Duke Statistics - Conference Play Only:

Offense (Rank) Defense (Rank)
PPP 1.17 (3) 1.09 (8)
eFG% 56.7% (1) 49.1% (6)
TO% 16.1% (5) 15.3% (12)
OReb% 30.3% (9) 34.7% (14)
FTA/FGA 40.0 (3) 24.8 (1)

When people discuss  the Duke Blue Devils this season, it's mainly to make fun of them for dropping out of the polls for the first time since 2008, or to point out that their star Grayson Allen is a dirty player. Both are valid. But talk of Duke's demise may be a bit overblown. Duke is still a very good basketball team. The Blue Devils entered last season's showdown ranked #8 by KenPom; this season they're #12.

Duke's offense is again one of the nation's best, led by a breakout year from Allen (who leads the nation in efficiency among those using over 24% of possessions) and strong contributions from freshman Brandon Ingram. The team relies pretty heavily on their "big 2," but starts two more dangerous three-point shooters in Matt Jones and Derryck Thornton.  Finally, Marshall Plumlee is generally a little quieter on offense, but is highly efficient, making baskets at a 66% clip and getting to the line more than any other player in the ACC.

Wait, then why isn't Duke AMAZING?! Well, their defense is pretty mediocre, allowing 1.09 PPP during ACC play. It's on this end of the floor that they're sorely missing Amile Jefferson, who has been out since early December with a foot injury.

How could UVA go about picking up their first win in Durham since a double OT victory in 1995? Here are two factors that the Hoos must balance to earn a victory:

1. Crash the offensive glass

ACC opponents have averaged an eFG% of 49.1% against Duke; compare that to UVA's opponents' average of 48.6%, and it doesn't seem like Duke's that bad at defense after all. The difference comes on the defensive boards, where UVA ranks atop the conference, but Duke sits at 14th, allowing opponents to grab 35% of their own misses.

Over at the "Hard Hedge" podcast, ESPN's John Gasaway noted that Duke's weakness will cease to be a weakness if UVA doesn't try to exploit it. UVA ranks 13th in the ACC in offensive rebounding, but that's more because of a strategic decision than a lack of ability, as Gill and Tobey are strong offensive rebounders.

In Duke's two home losses this year, Notre Dame and Syracuse (both very good offensive rebounding teams) posted OReb%s of 42% and 52%, respectively. If UVA comes even close to that kind of success, they'll be in strong position.

.....While also limiting transition points

There's a method to Tony Bennett's madness in his decision to ease up on the offensive boards. There's a trade off between rebounding and transition defense, and Bennett has elected for the latter. If the Hoos press the issue more on the rebounding end, they'll have to still balance it with limiting transition.

Last season, UVA had allowed a combined 31 transition points in their first 19 games...before Duke scored 10 fast break points in the first half, stunning the Hoos by attacking a perceived strength. Coach Krzyzewski and Coach Bennett likely haven't forgotten what went down at JPJ, and the behind-the-scenes chess match between the storied coach and Coach K will probably center on this issue.

2. Stay true to Packline interior principles

UVA's defense is back! Predicated on stopping penetration, the Packline's success can often be measured by looking at the opponent's two-point shooting percentages. This measure hadn't been as sterling as in past years, until the past 4 games, when opponents averaged 36% on twos.

It will be difficult to keep the Blue Devils to that type of average (they've made over 40% of their twos in all but one game this year, against Utah). But the Hoos can't allow the easy buckets they were giving up earlier this year, and must instead try forcing Allen and Ingram to win by taking jump shots.

.....While not allowing kick-out threes

Okay, this is way easier said than done, since this is effectively Duke's entire offense. But, in another balancing act, Virginia must manage to stick to Packline principles of shutting down the interior, while also not over-committing and allowing too many open kick-out threes. The Blue Devils have capable three-point shooters all over the court, and start four players (Ingram, Allen, Thornton, and Jones) that all have made between 39 and 43% of their threes.

Brogdon will probably lead the charge guarding the versatile Allen, though it'll likely be a bit of a team effort.  Ingram is a trickier case, as the Hoos have struggled in the past with front court players who can also shoot threes; over 40% of Ingram's shot attempts have come from behind the arc.

"Pack the inside, but close out hard." "Take advantage of offensive rebounds, but shut down Duke in transition." Virginia must keep these trade-offs in a delicate balance to pull off a cathartic win in Durham.