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THE BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Cavaliers vs. Duke Blue Devils

The clash between the No. 1 team in the AP Poll and the No. 1 team in the Coaches’ Poll.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Here we go. This is what we’ve been waiting for. Your Virginia Cavaliers travel down to Cameron to take on the Duke Blue Devils in the clash between the two No. 1 teams in the country. This game has been circled on the calendars for both Duke basketball fans and Virginia basketball fans since the ACC schedule was released. Not surprising, ESPN College GameDay will be there for the festivities.

If you’re reading this, I assume you know what happened last year. If you haven’t already, read Caroline’s wonderful piece on her experience with the Cameron Crazies.

Last year’s Duke team had three first-round picks, including Grayson Allen. After four long years, Allen is finally gone. That makes this year’s Duke team incredibly young. Based on minutes played, this Duke team is the seventh youngest in the nation. That may change, after freshman PG Tre Jones suffered a separated shoulder in Monday’s home loss to Syracuse. Initial reports had the injury keeping Jones out indefinitely, but recent reports are that the injury is not that bad. He might even play in this game, though that does seem unlikely.

It remains to be seen how Duke will respond without Jones. They certainly have options. The simplest option is for backup PG Jordan Goldwire to step into the starting lineup. However, he played just eight minutes against Cuse after Jones went down just six minutes in. So that doesn’t seem likely. Goldwire is a good defensive PG, but he hasn’t looked comfortable running the offense in the few minutes he’s been asked to spell Jones.

One of Duke’s heralded freshmen, R.J. Barrett, stepped into the PG role against Syracuse. He’s second on the team in assists, and had 9 dimes against Cuse. He also had 23 points and 16 rebounds. That came with an O-Rating of just 94, because he needed 30 shots to get 23 points. Barrett seems like the most likely candidate to handle the ball.

The problem is that Barrett has a scoring mentality. His classmate, Zion Williamson, has gotten all the headlines. And Zion is the odds-on favorite to go first in the NBA draft. But Barrett leads the Blue Devils in scoring. And he leads in FGA by a wide margin. In fact, he’s taken almost 29% of their shots this season. Zion has taken just 18%. In an interesting tidbit, both Barrett and Williamson are left-handed.

If Barrett is running the show, is he going to be willing to pass the ball? Or would it take him out of his scoring mindset, and turn him into more of a facilitator? He’s 6’7”, which would give him a size advantage over most other PGs in the nation. That won’t really be the case against the 6’5” Ty Jerome, though Barrett may be too athletic for Jerome. Chances are, DeAndre Hunter is on Barrett, especially if Tre Jones is able to go.

Barrett has taken almost exactly one-third of his shots from downtown, but has made just 31.7% of them. That includes a 4-for-17 outing against Syracuse. Barrett was frustrated by the zone, and spent far too much time hanging out around the perimeter shooting jump shots. That will be Virginia’s MO against him as well. Barrett is very dangerous off the bounce and in transition. The transition points will be tough to come by against Virginia, but he could still hurt them by driving to the hoop. Virginia will play off him and dare him to shoot from outside.

The third PG option at is Cam Reddish. Reddish was the #3 rated recruit in the nation this year. Reddish is 6’8” and has guard skills. But because Barrett has dominated the ball so much, Reddish has been forced into a “3-and-D” role, which undersells his ability. Reddish has taken over 62% of his shots from downtown, where he making 36%. That’s fine, but it isn’t his game.

Perhaps it isn’t actually a good idea for all the top players to attend the same school? If Reddish had chosen to go somewhere else, he’d probably be the first option. He grew up less than 10 miles from Villanova, who recruited him hard. You think the defending champions, scuffling a bit at 13-4, couldn’t use a 6’8” playmaker right about now? It may not end up mattering to Reddish’s NBA future, as he is still projected as a top-5 pick. But calling his freshman campaign thus far anything other than disappointing would be erroneous.

Zion came to school with a reputation mostly as a ferocious dunker. He is certainly explosive, and not just the highlight reel dunks. Below are two plays that show Zion’s explosiveness and athletic ability, neither of which are dunks. On the first, he chases down the play and gets the big block in transition. On the second, he used that explosion to hang in the air and score over FSU’s 7’4” big man.

Zion is second on the team in scoring, first in rebounds, second in blocks and steals, third in assists. Yes, he’s proven to be an all around player. He’s shooting an absurd 74% on inside shots and has also shown an ability outside. He’s just 9-of-33 (27%) from downtown, which isn’t good. But the threat of the outside shot makes him more dangerous going to the rim. Who ends up guarding Zion is a bit of a mystery. Braxton Key seems the logical option, but Zion has 50 pounds on him. Just like Barrett, the Hoos will play off Zion and dare him to shoot from outside.

Zion has mostly played PF, with one of Duke’s “true” big men (Marques Bolden or Javin DeLaurier) next to him. They were both in the same class with Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Frank Jackson, all of whom are already in the NBA. Bolden was 5-star and DeLaurier was 4-star.

Bolden started the first seven games, but DuLaurier has started since. Bolden is bigger and probably better defensively. Delaurier is shooting a ridiculous 87% from the field, missing just four shots all season. They split time, with Coach K riding the hot had of whoever is more effective on a given night. Both have had some issues with foul trouble, which also determines who gets more run. Against Syracuse, DeLaurier started and played 11 minutes, with Bolden playing 34 minutes. That adds up to the full 45 minutes of the OT game. One of them was on the floor the entire game.

If Jones can’t go, the fifth starter isn’t really known. With Reddish out, the fifth starter was junior wing Jack White. He promptly shot 0/10 from three and did not score in 42 minutes. He did have 6 assists and 5 rebounds. He also fouled out. The other option is sophomore Alex O’Connell who shot 4/8 from three and scored 16 points in 34 minutes. O’Connell was the 87th ranked player in the nation last year and White was a 3-star guy out of Australia in 2016. Both were very good, if not elite, recruits who are essentially afterthoughts at Duke. It’s disgusting, really.

White is bigger, and probably a better all-around player. O’Connell is a scorer, and a very good shooter (he’s leading the team at just 38%, but made 49% last year). White has taken 82% of his shots from deep, while O’Connell has taken 70% of his.

Coach K may decide to go with more minutes for O’Connell because he needs some outside shooting. Virginia is going to keep the Pack Line deep inside, and dare Duke to win the game from the outside. Both O’Connell and White are much bigger than Kyle Guy, but because of they way they are deployed, Tony will be able to use Guy to guard one of them. He’s giving up size, but if one of those guys wants to take on Kyle Guy, that’d be just fine. More shots for Duke’s fifth option is a win for Tony Bennett.

In last year’s game, Virginia led by 10 at halftime before Duke moved to a zone, which frustrated the Hoos. Ultimately, the Hoos won by finding space in the middle of the zone. Whether it was Ty Jerome dishing for a dunk down low, or it was DeAndre Hunter scoring in a number of different ways (driving for a layup below), Tony Bennett and the Hoos figured out a way to beat the zone.

It also helps when you can just shoot over top of the zone. You’ve seen this one before, and no doubt you’ll see it during tomorrow’s broadcast. But it’s worth watching over and over again.

The zone was necessary, because Duke’s top players were not good individual defenders. This year, that isn’t the case. You won’t see a whole lot of zone from Duke this year. Barrett, Reddish and Williamson are all good defenders, and Jones is one of the best perimeter defenders in the nation.

If Jones plays, Kihei Clark probably gets a lot of run to slow him down. But Jones likely guards either Ty Jerome or Kyle Guy. Clark isn’t enough of an offensive threat.

Reddish is also a great defender, and will probably be on Hunter throughout the game. Reddish is taller, but Hunter outweighs him and may be quicker. That will be a battle.

Make no mistake, this Duke team is loaded. Even without Tre Jones, they have more talent than anybody else in the nation. And they are licking their wounds following the loss to Syracuse. As we know, individual talent doesn’t always beat good (or great) teams. Virginia is certainly a good team. Are they great? We may find out tomorrow evening.