If Duke's concern after the Pitt game was toughness, that concern appears to have been addressed. Duke was tough against Virginia, and then some.
For two teams mostly playing what's called smallball, it was pretty close to smashmouth. On Duke's side of things, Kyle Singler got another facial gash and Nolan Smith's chin got introduced to the scorer's table. For Virginia, Calvin Baker got banged up.
Virginia has had an awful run of injuries, and can we suggest an explanation? It's a combination of their personnel and their style of play. Give Dave Leitao credit for making this team tougher, because under Pete Gillen it was anything but. You get the feeling, though, that maybe he's pushing things too hard. That was a criticism of former Duke football coach Mike McGee: his practices were so rugged that he never had a full compliment of players. We're not saying that Leitao is a brutal man, but we are suggesting that his emphasis on highly physical play, and the particular group of players he has now...well, it may not be a good combination. It's certainly a question worth asking.
We were stunned to hear that Virginia - Virginia! - leads the nation in rebounding margin at around 12. Can that possibly be right? Ahead of UNC, Kansas, UCLA, and closer to home, even ahead of Clemson? That's amazing.
So it was even more impressive that Duke outrebounded them, 35-34. It's not like we get to hang out at practice or anything (but if anyone wants to invite us, we're game!), but we'd just about bet the house money that Coach K really, really emphasized hitting the boards, taking charges, maybe even just whacking the crap out of each other just to get ready for other people to do it. That last one might be a stretch, but this team got tougher in a big hurry, so something happened.
The toughness extended to defense as well, where Duke held UVa to 42.4% from the floor and held the 'Hoos to four three point shots for the game. Sean Singletary got his, as he tends to do, and hit 6-12, but had six first half turnovers, as DeMarcus Nelson went right at Virginia's star guard. Mamadi Diane was only 3-12, and Adrian Joseph only got four shots off, hitting one. Good thing Baker was there - the walk-on had 13 points.
Aside from Singletary's abdication of ballhandling, the rest of the team had 12 more, and Duke scored a lot off the subsequent breaks.
Duke's offense was also a lot more aggressive. Kyle Singler, who is a tremendous talent, has at times been a bit reluctant to assert himself: not this time. He shot a lot more than he has recently, hit the boards hard, dove on the floor several times, and has the wound to prove it.
Nelson was aggressive on both ends, and had, really, a tremendous game. Aside from making Singletary miserable, he shot 8-12 from the floor, grabbed four boards, and was just about everything you'd want in a captain.
Gerald Henderson had a solid game as well, with 7-12 from the floor, two assists, two steals, and a block. He might have gotten a few more rebounds, but it wasn't a problem or anything.
Dave McClure and Lance Thomas only combined for one point (a Thomas free throw), but they also combined for 11 boards. Thomas got 14 minutes after his respiratory issue, which was great to see. And as for McClure, the guy was one of the smartest players in the ACC last season before he got hurt. He just gets the game. Now that his knee is almost back to full strength, his game is really picking up. For instance, he was more or less trapped in the lane and made a smart, quick pass out for a three pointer. It's not going to generate headlines, but it generated points. We're looking forward to more.
And it's also nice to see Jon Scheyer growing. If you hadn't thought about this, consider how many more points he's been scoring inside lately. Last year, he was much more outside-oriented. He's still got that part of his game, but he's strong enough and confident enough to cut to the basket, and to finish. Like Danny Ferry before him, he wasn't as sure about that his freshman year.
And both Greg Paulus and Nolan Smith did a great job running the team. There was no dropoff at all when Smith came in. He's pretty much come of age.
Several people have written us to ask why Taylor King hasn't played more of late. We don't know, but here are two things to consider: 1) Duke doesn't publicize injuries very often and so that's one possibility, and 2) he can't be just a three point shooter.
Keep in mind that both of those idea are just theories. King has had some really nice stretches of really savvy play, so we could be way off.
Any way you look at it, though, this was a really useful game for Duke, and they proved a lot to themselves.