Next up for Duke is a tough Virginia Tech team that has been hit by suspensions and injuries this season and so has probably not lived up to its full potential.
The Hokies started off by suspending star Chris Clarke. He’s so suspended that he’s no longer on the official Virginia Tech site. No word has leaked about exactly what happened but it damaged the rotation immensely. He was a great sixth man.
Freshman Landers Noelly is also sitting out. In his case there were questions about his ACT scores.
Virginia Tech had adapted reasonably well to those personnel losses but it was really impossible to replace point guard Justin Robinson.
Robinson was having a superb year when he injured his toe. He has broken the school record for career assists and is the kind of floor leader that can really make his team better.
He’s been out all of February and there’s no word on when he will get back.
His absence has hit his team hard and in particular Nickeil Alexander-Walker and Ahmad Hill’s games have suffered.
Hill was shooting well before Robinson left the lineup and at times brilliantly.
Since then? He’s gone 27-86 in February which works out to about 31.4 percent.
In the Miami game he shot 11-17. Since then he’s gone 24-82 for 29.2 percent.
You can almost feel Robinson’s absence in those stats.
Roxboro’s Ty Outlaw has done somewhat better - 19-46 for 41 percent - but his average has also taken a hit.
The one guy who has really blossomed has been Kerry Blackshear. Previously known for his ability to foul out quickly, Blackshear has blossomed in Robinson’s absence and Buzz Williams has rebuilt his team around his big man.
In February, Blackshear has hit 46-77 - just under 60 percent - and he's gotten to the line a lot, taking 48 shots there and converting 40 of them for a very respectable 83.3 percent.
He’s also been hitting three pointers on occasion and has had some big rebounding games lately: 13 against State, 13 against Virginia and 14 against Notre Dame.
He’s still had some bad foul games: he fouled out against Miami and NC State and had four against Pitt.
Still, he’s made tremendous progress and his team would be in deep trouble without him.
Against Notre Dame this weekend, Williams started Blackshear, Hill, Alexander-Walker, Outlaw and 6-1 sophomore Wabissa Bede.
He has potential but he’s no more Justin Robinson than Alex O’ Connell is Zion Williamson and that’s not a knock on either guy. It’s just that there’s a reason they don’t start at this point in their careers.
This game is interesting in another sense: both Williams and Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski have been proponents of positionless basketball. Both teams feature a number of interchangeable parts and, in Virginia Tech’s case at least, several guys who could heat up from three point range.
For Duke, it’s going to be an interesting mental and physical challenge.
Can we take a minute for a mea culpa? We were opposed to expansion when it happened. In retrospect, ACC Commissioner John Swofford was right. The ACC had to expand or risk becoming what he called a “boutique shop.”
We also thought that Virginia Tech wouldn't add much to ACC basketball. They have added a few things now.
First, as a conference rivalry, the Virginia-Virginia Tech rivalry is tremendous. Second, when it is at its best, Cassell Coliseum rivals Clemson’s Littlejohn at its best and approaches Virginia and Duke’s high standards.
And third, Virginia Tech has become a worthy ACC basketball team.
Williams has made the Hokies a reliably tough team. They do struggle away from home at times but this is is no longer a predictable win. And that’s great for everyone except possibly Duke Tuesday night.
The Blue Devils will be without Zion Williamson again but Coach K got in the K kitchen and tried some new recipes. He put Alex O’Connell and Javin DeLaurier in the starting lineup and Duke suddenly became faster overall on defense and O’Connell pumped up the three point shooting game as well.
Joey Baker, no longer a redshirt candidate, offers depth and a dangerous shot.
It’s not like no Zion no problem but the team was remade quickly for Syracuse and beyond. It wasn’t discussed a whole lot but it was a superb adjustment to circumstance.
Blackshear is Duke’s biggest problem. Someone has to chase him around when he goes outside and only three guys on the roster can guard him inside - the 6-9 DeLaurier, 6-11 Marques Bolden and 6-11 Antonio Vrankovic.
Staying out of foul trouble is key for the Blue Devils.
Assuming they do, Duke should match up well on the perimeter. There is one matchup that merits special attention and that's Tre Jones against Bide.
Jones will surely try to turn him over, but Bide is actually pretty good with the ball. He doesn’t have to turn him over a lot though. He just needs to make him pick up the ball away from the basket or turn his back. Alexander-Walker, Bide, and Blackshear are pretty good passers but there is no replacing Robinson.
For Duke to win, it starts with disrupting ball movement and limiting Blackshear. Virginia Tech is committed to running so it won’t be a slow game. It could be a long game though if the Blue Devils let Virginia Tech’s three point shooters heat up or if Blackshear successfully draws fouls.
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