It's hard to tell which Virginia team will show up on Sunday night when the Cavs venture into Cameron to face the top ranked Blue Devils. Will they be the Cavalier team that suffered through a 42-point blowout to the Devils in Cameron last year? Or will they resemble the squad that upset Duke in Charlottesville? Will they be the team that started the season with 9 straight wins, or will they be the one that dropped their first two league games to NC State and Clemson? That's the kind of inconsistency that makes UVa coach Pete Gillen happy he has the best sense of humor in the ACC coaching ranks.
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that Gillen has this team ranked in the top-10 in the country is a testament to his skill on the bench. Or it could be a testament to an early season scheduling juggernaut of teams like Wagner, East Tennessee State, Charleston Southern, Howard and Grambling. The one premier game on the Hoos schedule was supposed to have been Michigan State, but in one of the more bizarre occurrences in college basketball that game was canceled midway through the contest because of unplayable floor conditions. The official explanation was due to condensation from the hockey ice below the basketball floor, but many suspect the real cause to be Gillen, a man who makes Gary Williams look like a SpeedStick spokesman.
Even taking the quality of their opponents into consideration, it's hard not to respect the job that Gillen has done thus far. Coming into the season it looked like all the pieces were there. But then Majestic Mapp, who was supposed to step in and take the place of four year starting point guard Donald Hand, underwent preseason knee surgery, forcing him to miss his second straight year. Virginia had solid depth at most every position - the lone exception being the point guard spot. As a result, Gillen has had to juggle his lineup and rush the development of some of his younger players.
The injury to Mapp is far from the only adversity the Cavaliers have faced. In their last game, Gillen was able to look to the end of his bench and see three projected starters sitting in street clothes. In typical Gillen fashion, he responded to the situation by stating, "We had a lot of guys on the bench, I didn't know who they were. Poets and accountants and haberdashers. We just need players. We had guys in suits. Guys wearing sweaters. You could smell cologne."
The younger player who is being rushed into action at the point guard is 6-3 freshman Keith Jenifer. With the loss of Mapp, Jenifer has been thrown into ACC action and require to learn on the job. In a league filled with great guards that's somewhat akin to learning to drink from a fire hydrant.
Jenifer has performed adequately, relying primarily on his quickness to get into the lane and distribute the ball. Gillen would prefer to see that rather than having him attempt any outside shots as he's hit on just one of his 10 attempts from beyond the three-point line. Jenifer's main struggles have been taking care of the ball and playing sound defense. He tends to try and rely on his quickness rather than sound defensive techniques and as a result, he picks up fouls in bunches.
At the off guard spot for the Cavs is one of the league's most underrated performers. 6-5 junior Roger Mason is the fourth leading scorer in the league. But if you asked most causal fans to name their candidates for first team all league honors, you would hear few outside of Charlottesville mention Mason's name. Part of that is Mason's misfortune to play the same position as stars like Jason Williams and Juan Dixon. But the other part of that is that coming into the league, Mason was far from a major name.
Duke fans who didn't know Mason last year will surely remember him after the game at Virginia when he dropped 20 points on the Devils. This year he leads the team in scoring at 18 points a game and is the key to the UVa offense. Where he's especially effective is driving the ball strong to the basket. He can be a streaky three point shooter, but uses that mostly to keep defenders honest and set up his penetration. If he gets to the line it's almost automatic as he's hitting on just under 90% of his attempts.
He is also very versatile and Gillen had been using him at the point guard spot for much of the season. Virginia is a much more stable team with Mason at the point, but it comes with a price. When he's at the point guard spot, Mason doesn't have as much freedom to work all areas of the court like he does when he plays the off-guard. Gillen has shown he was willing to make that tradeoff and would probably be still running Mason at the point guard spot were it not for an injury to yet another Cavalier.
Guard/forward Adam Hall has missed the last 4 games with an injured foot and is listed as questionable for Sunday night's game. Because of the type of player he is, Hall could struggle coming back from the foot injury. The 6-5 senior has always been an inconsistent shooter but compensates for that with his great athleticism. If that injury still bothers him he could have trouble cutting to the basket and jumping - two primary elements of his game.
If Hall cannot go, Gillen will have to push for more minutes from freshman Jermaine Harper. The 6-3 Harper is similar to Jenifer in that they are both ultra-quick guards who are better penetraters than shooters, although Harper is the better shooter of the two, particularly in league competition Harper is capable of playing the point, but he's more comfortable with the off guard role. The backcourt for the Hoos can be shaky when both freshmen are in the game without Mason.
The one thing that Gillen has been trying to do for the last two recruiting years is sign a top-notch center. It's not that the Hoos are exactly struggling in the pivot. In fact, Travis Watson has been one of the most effective centers in the league the last two years. The problem is that he could be one of the best power forwards in the country. Watson has been forced to play the center because the Hoos don't have any other options at the position.
Watson is listed at 6-8, but that's using the same wink-and-a-nudge reporting methods favored by the folks at Enron. In reality, he is probably closer to 6-7 but that doesn't really matter. What does matter is that Watson is a fierce rebounder who uses his 260 lbs. to establish and hold position. High school teammate Chucky Gilmore (formerly of Clemson) described Watson as a guy who rebounds like "somebody just out of jail named Bubba, a monster on the court."
Unfortunately for Watson, the nickname stuck and unfortunately for opponents, so did the dedication to rebounding. He's not very polished offensively, although he is left-handed which can make him more difficult to defend. His game is like Moses Malone's - throw the ball up on the glass and go get it as many times as you have to, eventually it's going to fall in the basket. He can have trouble defensively where his lack of height forces him to try push his man away from the basket. As a result, he's apt to pick up some cheap fouls.
Chances are the Hoos will start J.C. Mathis at the power forward spot. The 6-8 sophomore has more mobility than Watson with range out to about 15 feet. Like Watson, he's active on the boards but Mathis relies more on quick leaping than positioning.
At the other forward spot is Chris Williams, a 6-7 senior who made an impact in his first year at Virginia when he averaged almost 17 points a game and was named the ACC Rookie of the Year. Williams' numbers have fallen off each year since but that's more results of an improvement in the quality of people around him than any drop off in his performance.
Most of Williams' career he has been playing out of position at the power forward spot. He has an awkward looking shot but is still effective from the outside, hitting on 37.5% of his three-point attempts. But where he really becomes effective is when he can get to the basket. He's a very fluid player that makes a lot of plays that look effortless. Gillen also uses him on occasion as a point forward, bringing the ball up court when UVa's guards are pressured.
Coming off the bench are two freshmen who, while not giving Gillen the one big true center he's been trying to land, do allow the team to present the opposition some different looks. 6-8 Elton Brown is a 245 lb. banger who has a surprisingly deft touch from the three-point line. Much like Tahj Holden from Maryland, Brown has the outside shot and bulk, but lacks the ability to put the ball on the floor. Fortunately for the Hoos, Brown is very conservative with his outside shot and spends most of his time down low.
At 6-8, 220 lbs. and a good leaper, Clark is more similar to Mathis. He leads the team in blocked shots, despite only playing 12 minutes a game. Clark has a long way to go before his offense catches up to his defense, but can get points off the offensive glass and in transition where he can use his athleticism.
For the past few games, Duke has been able to use Dahntay Jones to harass high scoring backcourt players. The temptation here would be to do the same with the Cavalier's Roger Mason. But the Chris Williams of the Cavaliers makes that a much tougher switch. Were Krzyzewski to use Jones on Mason it would leave a Williams on Williams matchup - Jason defending Chris. That's a much tougher defensive assignment than Byron Mouton or Kenny Walls as Chris Williams is far more comfortable taking the smaller Jason Williams inside. Chris Williams, who spent the last three years as a power forward, has a good touch around the basket that only gets better if he's defended by a 6-3 guard.
Consequently you're likely to see a pretty traditional matchup when Duke defends against Virginia. That places a premium on Jason William's defense as he's likely to draw the assignment against Mason, a pairing that will probably be mirrored when Duke has the ball. Both players must be careful to avoid foul trouble as they are both crucial to the offensive execution of their teams. In that regard Williams may have a slight advantage as Duke will be able to offer more help with his defensive assignment due to the lack of three point shooters on the UVa team.
With the graduation of Keith Friel the Cavs find themselves with few three point threats. As a team they are shooting just 32% in conference play with no player other than Mason taking a significant number of attempts. Look for Dunleavy to play a soft defense on Mathis to provide help on any penetration from Mason. Duke may also need to use Dunleavy for help defending Watson in the post. As has been noted by anyone who has seen Duke play this year, the Devils face a significant drop off in production when Carlos Boozer has to go to the bench. The same could be said for the Cavaliers who get most of their inside points from Watson. Like the Williams / Mason matchup, the battle between Boozer and Watson may come down to who is able to stay out of foul trouble.
Watson's productivity could also be limited by a hip pointer injury that sidelined him for Virginia's contest against VMI earlier this week. He is expected to play against Duke but has not practiced and could be a little off his normal game.
Like all of Duke's opponents, Virginia will have a hard time matching up with Mike Dunleavy. The book on defending Duke had been to let your small forward guard Dunleavy and your power forward defend Jones, giving him all sorts of room to compensate for his quickness. But in his last two games, Jones is averaging 20 points and 7 rebounds and teams are going to have to start respecting his offensive abilities. Still, the Cavaliers are likely to decide to make Jones beat them rather than Dunleavy. If Mathis is unable to keep up with Dunleavy on the perimeter you can expect to see Gillen switch the defensive responsibility to Chris Williams.
For Duke to prevail they'll once again need to play with the renewed intensity of the last few weeks. After a less than scintillating second half against Boston College it seemed that the team may have regressed some. But in his post game interview Krzyzewski seemed quite dismissive of the letdown. Coach K is arguably the best in the business at guiding the emotions of his club and his response seemed calculated to ensure the team becoming emotionally drained out at this point in the season.
One area where the coaching staff is not bound to be dismissive would be on the glass, where once again, the Devils were outrebounded. That's not a good thing to see when you're coming up against a Virginia team that leads the league in rebounding. Duke's emphasis against Boston College was to send everybody to the boards and they'll have to do the same against UVa. Even still, it's doubtful that they will be able to outrebound the Cavs and the Duke defense will need to force turnovers to offset the difference. A big key to this game will be how the freshman Jenifer handles the pressures of Cameron.
Virginia is a well-coached team that features an enviable blend of power and quickness. They have some weaknesses, particularly with their ball handling and three-point shooting. In their losses, they've been unable to offset those weaknesses with their rebounding. Duke is the type of team that may not be able to take away the strengths of Virginia, but they should be able to magnify the weaknesses.
Regardless of the outcome you can be assured of one thing - Pete Gillen will make you chuckle with his post-game comments.