First, let’s be clear about this. Under Tony Bennett, at least in regular season play, Virginia has become as consistent an ACC power as Duke or UNC. Post-season is still a different story but in the regular season, Virginia has been the most consistent team in the conference lately.
When Bennett came to the ACC, Mike Krzyzewski said he had a “unique” style. Truer words were never spoken.
Bennett took the defense his father created, the Pack Line, and made it vastly more effective.
You may remember that Dick Bennett used it to lead Wisconsin to the Final Four in 1999-2000 - amid tons of criticism of his coaching style, which may sound familiar.
After his Final Four team, he resigned three games into the next season saying he was burned out. He returned to coaching for the 2003-04 season with Washington State and coached three more years before Tony took over and launched his own career.
Bennett did very well at Washington State and it’s not easy to do well there. It’s about as close to the University of Idaho as Duke is to UNC and nearly five hours away from the University of Washington in Seattle.
In West coast terms - in American terms really - it’s about as close to nowhere as you can get.
Yet Bennett succeeded there and when Virginia had enough of the lamentable Dave Leitao, former A.D. Craig Littlepage had the sense to go after him.
It was audacious. Bennett had no East coast ties to speak of, other than perhaps family in Pittsburgh, where his father grew up. He played ball in the Midwest and coached at Wisconsin and WSU with his dad.
And the Pack Line left a bad taste in many people’s mouths.
Yet it was undeniable: Bennett could not hope to recruit with Arizona, UCLA or many of the other PAC-12 schools, and not Gonzaga either. He did get Klay Thompson and Aron Bayne, but there weren’t many notable talents.
He found a way to prosper with players who were not as well regarded as some conference rivals, and that must have sounded good to Littlepage, who snapped him up, hoping he could do the same in the ACC.
Bennett might have believed he could succeed as wildly as he has but we’d bet not many other people did.
At Virginia, he’s finished 15-16, 16-15, 22-10, 23-12, 30-7, 30-4, 29-8, 23-11 and this year is off to a 16-0 start, which leads us to Cameron Indoor Stadium and Saturday’s matchup.
People who criticize his system often haven’t seen it in person. The offense looks slow on TV but the defense is amazing to watch. That team just shuts people down. You get to the end of the shot clock and if you can’t get inside, which you typically can’t, you’re forced to chunk up a well-guarded three.
Love it or hate it, it’s extremely effective and in person, it’s dramatic to watch.
Virginia just chokes the life out of other teams.
On offense, the Cavaliers are deliberate and very efficient. But here’s the thing about Virginia under Tony Bennett now. He’s always recruited intelligent and unselfish players but this year he’s got a pretty athletic team, including several players who are deceptively so.
Virginia relies on a fairly small rotation: Kyle Guy, 6-2/175 lb junior, Ty Jerome, 6-5/195 lb. junior, De’Andre Hunter, 6-7/225 lb. sophomore, Kihei Clark, 5-9/155 lb. freshman (maybe), Braxton Key, 6-8/225 lb. junior transfer from Alabama, Jack Salt, 6-10/250 lb. senior, Mamadi Diakite, 6-9/228 lb. junior and Jay Huff, a 7-1 232 lb. native of Durham.
Huff doesn’t play a lot in tight games so it’s typically a seven-man rotation. Virginia can get away with it because they are very well conditioned and highly disciplined.
The most athletic players on the team we’d say, are Hunter and Diakite and that makes interior defense that much tougher to deal with. Key is also fairly athletic.
Guy and Jerome are deceptively athletic and superb basketball players. Guy has a real offensive swagger, an ability to really light things up, and Jerome is a cut throat competitor. He’s been a brilliant point guard for Virginia.
Behind those guys, and a starter at times before his wrist injury, freshman Clark is capable of amazing ball pressure. Bennett called him “a winner” earlier this season and he’s right. He’s very small but like his backcourt mates, he has a deep understanding of the game and of Bennett’s interpretation of it too.
Salt is not particularly athletic but he’s powerful and smart and a great fit for Bennett’s system (he’s pushed Duke around a bit but with Bolden and especially Williamson, Duke is prepared to push back).
The thing about Virginia is this: they put immense pressure on you defensively but they absolutely crucify you on mistakes while minimizing their own: Virginia averages just 8.8 turnovers per game. And you can’t hurry against Virginia, because every rushed, poor shot adds to their advantage.
It’s really very similar to what the Princeton offense does: it turns your strengths against you. Usually when you play Virginia, you’re going to play their game. They just aren't going to be rushed or pressured.
Duke approaches this veteran team with a very young group of its own. Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish and Tre Jones are all freshmen.
The returnees had minimal experience: sophomores Alex O’ Connell and Jordan Goldwire didn’t play very much last season, really only seeing spot duty.
Of the juniors, Marques Bolden has been injury-prone (thankfully not this season), Javin DeLaurier played behind a a wall of talent until this year and while Jack White showed promise last season, he was a role player, which still is. Justin Robinson is a valuable player in practice and behind the scenes but hasn’t had a huge on-court impact although we could imagine his lanky three point shooting could be an issue for Virginia if he got the chance. Lone senior Antonio Vrankovic is a smart, tough-minded player with good hands but somewhat leaden feet.
As you surely know, Duke played Syracuse without Reddish, who was ill, and Jones, who injured his shoulder six minutes in. Those were six stunning minutes of basketball as Jones nearly decapitated the Syracuse offense by himself. In fact his injury happened while he dove for a ball he had knocked loose.
Watching him against Syracuse was like watching a border collie work a flock of sheep. He had an amazing amount of control over that game until he went out, and it’s no coincidence that Syracuse’s offense caught fire the minute he left.
You just don’t see that level of dominance from a point guard very often and it was a shame to see him get hurt just as he was hitting it.
His injury clearly rattled Duke in that game. He’s unlikely to play against Virginia, but on the other hand, he hasn’t been ruled out either. Just don’t expect it.
Duke will prepare to play without Jones obviously which means sorting out the point guard position.
Barrett did a pretty amazing job, nearly racking up a triple double but shooting poorly. He shot just 8-30 which sounds like a lot but you can be sure he was told to shoot and keep shooting. If he had managed better than 4-17 from three point range Duke would probably have won. And who else was going to do it?
White shot 0-10 and seemed unprepared for his sudden role change. Williamson shot 12-20 but most of those were inside shots and Syracuse really hammered him defensively. You couldn’t have asked for much more.
Bolden shot 4-6 but he’s a post player and didn’t get the ball that much. He did play well overall though.
DeLaurier’s not shooting it unless it’s a gimme and Jones and Reddish weren’t available. Goldwire did take two shots but he’s not an offensive player at this point in his career and may never be.
The only other guy who shot reasonably well was O’ Connell, who hit 5-9 and finished with 16, a career high.
Pretty clearly, the young Blue Devils weren’t prepared to lose two critical starters, one just before the game and one six minutes in. O’ Connell though did step up and took advantage of his opportunity, probably more so than anyone else. He even played very well defensively, which you couldn’t have said last year. Based on that, we expect he’ll start Saturday assuming Jones is out.
So what to expect against Virginia?
Well first of all, Duke will have to defend well, and for most of the shot clock. Second, the Blue Devils will have to move the ball quickly against the Pack Line without rushing shots. You can score against Virginia but not if you’re in a hurry.
Third, Duke will have to avoid foolish mistakes. Last year, if you’ll recall, Duke was right in the game until Trevon Duval grabbed a rebound with 1:05 left and Duke down 60-58.
He then promptly turned the ball over to Jerome who, after a foul by Grayson Allen, nailed a three to put Virginia up 63-58, which was pretty much ball game.
It just underscores the point of how you have to deal with Virginia. You can’t fall into their game but you can’t let them force you into rushing yours. It’s a tricky balance.
Duke has had more success against Virginia than most teams in the ACC and Duke figures to be in this game too. But it’s never really easy.
For some reason, some Duke students, normally very bright about such things, thought that inviting KJ Maura, UMBC’s hero in last spring’s epic upset of UVA, would somehow upset Virginia...what could they have been thinking?
It was almost certain to have precisely the opposite effect, which everyone should have figured out when Guy encouraged UVA fans to help the fundraiser set up to get him here.
If it hasn’t occurred to you yet, the trauma from that game is over and now it’s fuel. It was a massive failure, but starting with Bennett’s wonderfully graceful press conference, Virginia began to gain perspective on the loss.
Yes, they fell apart against a 16 seed. Yes it was a humiliating loss. Yes it never should have happened.
It did happen of course, and Virginia could have licked their wounds, could have still been licking their wounds, but they’re not. They’ve employed it to get better.
That’s the great miscalculation here. Parking that kid in front of Virginia would have focused them wonderfully. We don't want to go there again. There he is. Don’t let up! Not for a single second! Play harder!
And really, Virginia hasn’t let up. Virginia has had four reasonably close games but they were still in control for the most part.
The Cavaliers have not wavered, have not lost focus and have beaten every other team by significant margins.
This is a solid, mature and well-coached team which has a point to make. We don’t know what Coach K thought about Maura’s visit initially, and we don’t know why UMBC coach Lane Odom asked him not to make the trip. We don’t know if Odom called K or K called Odom but they apparently both agreed, presumably for their own reasons, that this was really not a smart idea - and Duke students are nothing if not smart.
The smart thing to do here is to keep the fundraiser and invite the kid back for the UNC game. He was part of something remarkable and Duke fans can celebrate that later, which would be a classy thing to do actually. Celebrating him and the history he and UMBC made would be cool. Using him to try to humiliate Virginia is not only not cool but almost guaranteed to backfire.
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