Duke will certainly be favored over Virginia Tech Thursday night, but if recent history proves anything, it's that there's nothing certain about this game.
After Duke's initial blowout of Virginia Tech when they first joined the conference, Seth Greenberg has managed to keep his team highly competitive with the Blue Devils.
The most amazing part of it was Sean Dockery's 40 foot buzzer beater, something which secured him a place in Cameron lore. But what a lot of people forget is that before that shot, Tech had outplayed Duke pretty thoroughly.
The most important common element in all those games were Tech's guards, Zabian Dowdell and Jamon Gordon, who gave Duke fits, and center Coleman Collins, who was erratic except for when he was playing against Duke.
All three of those are gone, and as you probably know, freshman Jeff Allen, who has been a pretty good center for the Hokies, has been suspended for bumping an official and won't play against Duke. It's not clear yet how Tech will fill his spot, though they're likely to start fellow rookie J. T. Thompson, who at 6-6 is also a reasonable rebounder. And as Dean Smith used to say, a team could often get itself fired up to play a game or two without a key player, so don't be surprised to see Tech come out of the gate at a fever pitch.
But while Tech clearly hasn't been intimidated by Duke, things are different. Tech relies on three freshmen guards - 5-9 Hank Thorns, 6-2 Malcolm Delaney, and 6-5 Dorenzo Hudson. They're doing fairly well for freshman and mostly hanging on to the ball. Between the three of them, they're only averaging 4.4 turnovers a game. You can expect Duke to try to pressure them heavily and to see if they can maintain that.
Like Duke, Tech isn't huge up front even with Allen, and smaller without him. They're starting 6-6 junior A.D. Vassallo, who is averaging 15.8 ppg and 4.7 boards and 6-7 Deron Washington, who rather memorably leapt over Greg Paulus for an emphatic dunk last season. Washington is averaging 12.4 ppg and 6.3 rpg.
Tech is a bit ahead of expectations, partly because the Hokies have rebounded well, led by Allen. Allen aside, they haven't shot particularly well. Vasallo is hitting 42.5% and Washington clocks in at 40.0%. And free throw shooting is mediocre, with the Hokies hitting a collective 68.8%.
Tech is not a powerhouse offensive team, averaging only 67.6 ppg (70.5 in-conference), but they are holding opponents to 60.7. That goes up to 73.2 against ACC foes.
Against ACC foes, they're only shooting 38.5%.
Pretty clearly, to beat Duke they can't play Duke's game. They'll have to slow Duke down, make each possession a battle, and play lock-down defense. They'll also have to avoid turnovers (which Duke has feasted on), pass well, and take smart shots.
We've seen Vasallo and Washington have explosive games in the past, and neither would surprise us if they erupted here. However, Duke's defense is quite a bit different as well. DeMarcus Nelson is capable of guarding four of their starters, and Gerald Henderson is a radically different player from last season. Paulus is healthy and much better, and Nolan Smith has been a bracing presence defensively (and increasingly on offense too). And Tech will have to figure out what to do with Kyle Singler. Singler has often been required to play bigger guys, but that won't be the case here; he'll be the tallest player on the court most of the time. And he's gotten past his early reticence and is having an impact offensively from the perimeter on in. Also, it'll be interesting to see if Taylor King gets a chance to go off. He's got a lot of swagger to his game which he hasn't really shown on the road yet. An explosion somewhere is coming soon.
It's not an impossible game to pull off, and they have the confidence to do it, given their recent performances against Duke, but this is a team with seven freshmen (including Allen), and only four upperclassmen. Given the history of the rivalry so far, don't expect Duke to take anything for granted. A Tech win can't be ruled out, but they'll have to take Duke's very best shot to do it.