There are a number of reasons for this. Both teams are usually pretty good, both almost always nationally ranked.
And the games have been highly competitive. The last eight meetings have been decided by 10 or fewer points, down-to-the-wire games making heroes of Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen and Ty Jerome, among others.
But there’s also a contrast of styles. Duke tends to be loaded with young, NBA-bound McDonald’s All-Americans, Virginia with upperclassmen, carefully trained and tutored to out-execute less-disciplined teams.
And that pack-line defense,boring, perhaps but definitely effective. Even Duke’s high-powered offense hasn’t topped 69 points against Virginia since a 76-61 win eight years ago.
But this year’s Virginia team may have amended the narrative. They can put points on the board, in a big way, 97 points against Coppin State, 100 against Marshall, 81 in a beat-down of top-10 in-state rival Virginia Tech.
Obviously, Tony Bennett has had talent in his recent run of dominance. Malcolm Brogdon, Joe Harris and Justin Anderson have become solid NBA players.
But with Jerome, Kyle Guy and De’Andre Hunter, Bennett has more next-level talent than ever before, making Virginia a difficult match-up on both ends of the court.
“It’s going to be a fight on both ends of the floor,” Jack White told the media after Thursday’s practice, “Seven of their top eight guys can stretch the floor and hit the three. So, we have to be ready for that.”
Javin DeLaurier agrees.
“They are a little bit different from Virginia teams in the past, where they’re able to put up more in the scoring category. So, we’re going to have to be more locked in.”
Cam Reddish practiced Thursday but unless Mike Krzyzewski pulls a rabbit out of his hat, Duke will be absent Tre Jones against the Cavaliers.
This being the Tre Jones Krzyzewski is touting as national defensive player of the year.
His likely absence does give Duke the chance to start four long perimeter, players able to switch at will.
Even without Jones, White says “We feel like our athleticism, our length, our ability to get everyone on the same page, we can still be one of the best defensive teams in the country. Everyone takes great pride in locking up.”
Jones has also been Duke’s primary offensive facilitator. But Duke played without Jones and Reddish on last summer’s Canada trip, giving R.J. Barrett valuable experience running the team. Reddish played lots of point guard in high school and Jordan Goldwire has some experience.
Who plays point until Jones gets back?
“We’ve been looking at a bunch of different looks in practice,” DeLaurier says. “To be honest, I can’t tell you more. But we’ve confident we’ll be able to handle things.”
If that sounds conspiratorial, it should be noted that DeLaurier is from the loose-lips-sink-ships-school-of-thought.
White implies Barrett will be the guy.
“He’s had experience doing that before, especially in Canada. Even today in practice, he did a really good job of being poised, of being strong with the ball, of being a leader. We have the utmost confidence in him doing the job well.”
White says Duke has moved on from Monday’s difficult loss to Syracuse.
“We didn’t practice Tuesday. A chance to get away from it and clear our heads. The mood now is more positive. We just to accept that [loss] and learn from it in a positive way.”
The lesson from Monday? “It has to be next man up,” DeLaurier says. “The next man has to respond and it took us too long to do that. Losing a game like that, as competitive as we are, it really hurts. It’s been a hard week for us. But we’re ready for Virginia.”
The keys to handing the Cavaliers their first loss?
“Not turning the ball over and communicating on defense,” DeLaurier says. “The important thing on Saturday is valuing the ball. We can’t work our butts off for 20-30 seconds on defense and turn around and give the ball right back to them. We have to be locked in on every play and play a full 40 minutes. It will be a good test for us and we’re excited.”
“You’ve got to be poised and strong and trust coach. Coach is getting the game plan for us. A big game to prove us and prove our maturity. We can’t shy away from who we are. We have to play to our strengths and trust each other. Take it play by play and be in the moment. It’s a game and you’re out there with your best mates, representing Duke. How much better does it get? At the end of the day, we’re all fortunate to be here.”
ESPN Game Day. Six P.M. in Cameron and your local TV providers.
Settle down for what promises to be a good one.
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