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The Big Preview: Huge game as Virginia Basketball hosts Duke

The Hoos will have to execute to perfection tonight.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Virginia Tech Michael Thomas Shroyer-USA TODAY Sports

At 20-7, the Virginia Cavaliers have clinched a top-4 spot in the ACC Tournament. They’ve won 20 games for the ninth consecutive season. They’ve won eight of nine. That all should be enough to get them into the NCAA Tournament. But once you’re in, seeding matters. An eight or nine seed has to face a number-one seed in the first weekend, and with just three regular season games remaining, the Hoos are now playing for seeding as they look for help from a win over Duke.

The Duke Blue Devils have fallen to 7th in the polls, and they are likely to fall further after their loss to Wake Forest this past Tuesday, but they are still fifth on KenPom. This comes after having lost two of their last three and three of their last six road games, but this shows their overall body of work, plus their talent level.

The Blue Devils are, as usual, led by a bunch of freshmen. This year, it’s Vernon Carey, Matthew Hurt, Wendell Moore and Cassius Stanley, joined by sophomore Tre Jones, who was a big part of last year’s team as a freshman. He chose not to turn pro despite the rest of the starting five leaving, and it’s given him an opportunity to improve in several ways. His three point shooting is up from 26% to 33%. He’s also getting to the line a lot more and has developed as a passer, raising his assist rate by 33%.

Carey came out of high school as the number-six recruit in the nation, per ESPN. He’s 6’10” 270 and has a strong all around game. He’s a capable shooter (7/19 37%) but is a beast inside. He averages nearly nine rebounds per game, despite playing just 24 minutes per game (often due to foul trouble). He’s in the top 100 nationally in offensive and defensive rebounds. He also gets to the line a ton, though he makes just 65% of his FTs. Defensively, he’s a strong shot blocker, but not a very good on-ball defender. He’s a lefty, and sometimes gets off balance when he is forced to his right.

If Carey gets this kind of position, he’s almost unstoppable. This may be a game for more run from Virginia’s Francisco Caffaro. He has the size and strength to bang with Carey where Mamadi Diakite might not.

The other three freshmen are all wings. Hurt is the biggest (at 6’9” 214) and likely the best, but he’s still mostly a perimeter player. Both Hurt and Stanley are good shooters, but they have little else in common. Stanley is an athletic freak — he’ll dunk everything and loves to get out in transition. Hurt is better in the half-court, taking almost half his shots from outside and knocking down 40% of them. And rather than getting out in transition, Hurt is good on the offensive glass.

Moore is a good defender and very strong in transition but isn’t much of a half-court offensive player. Can’t shoot and really doesn’t create much offense.

Here’s Hurt:

Here’s Stanley:

And here’s Moore:

Those last two are where Duke excels. They are one of the fastest paced teams in the nation, finding a lot of buckets in transition, or in semi-transition. They do not shoot many threes, though they shoot it well. With Carey inside and all the easy transition buckets, they dominate points in the paint, getting nearly half their points in the paint. They’re also very good on the offensive glass.

A few upperclassmen, Jordan Goldwire and Alex O’Connell, are also part of the wing rotation. O’Connell has been a deadeye shooter prior to this year, but he’s made just 27% this year from the longer distance. His minutes have been up and down. If O’Connell lost his shooting touch, maybe Goldwire found it. He entered the season at just 18% of his career threes and he’s made 37% this year on about 2 attempts per game. Goldwire is also the backup PG and has started 15 times, including the last five.

As always, Duke is one of the bigger teams in the nation, but, surprisingly, so is Virginia. There aren’t a lot of teams that have a guy who can match up on the perimeter with the 6’9” Hurt. Virginia has 6’8” Braxton Key, who might be the ideal matchup against Hurt. And the Hoos have three bigger wings who can guard Stanley and Moore. Tre Jones had a big game against the Hoos last year, but that was before Kihei Clark had cemented his place in Tony Bennett’s starting lineup.

This shot came against Kyle Guy. Jones won’t get that kind of space with Kihei on him.

So long as Virginia can avoid turnovers, the Hoos will be able to control the tempo, but this has been a problem for the Hoos all season long. Duke will gamble for steals, and if they win the gamble, it usually leads to an easy bucket. If the gamble doesn’t pay off, not only does Virginia keep the ball, it will likely lead to some easy buckets for the Hoos, and that would go a long way towards keeping with Duke’s high powered offense.

Virginia will have to be firing on all cylinders to pull out the win at home tonight. They’re playing their peak basketball on the season right now, so this is a good challenge and a good test heading into March.