Next up for Duke basketball is a rematch with Virginia and after the clash in Cameron we can reasonably expect another Clash of the Titans.
In Durham, Duke was without Tre Jones and won anyway. In Charlottesville, Virginia may be without Ty Jerome, who sprained his back in the recent NC State game.
Fortunately for Virginia, they have a handy backup in Kihei Clark. The 5-9 freshman is an outstanding defender who has made a big impression already with coach Tony Bennett.
And they’ll still have Kyle Guy. The 6-2 Hoosier has been a great fit at Virginia and he’s deceptively athletic and very dangerous.
However, his shooting has been a bit wobbly lately. At Duke he was 6-12 but 2-7 from deep. Against Wake Forest he was 3-10, all three pointers. He got hot against the Irish, hitting 6-8 against Notre Dame but against NC State was just 3-11 and 1-5 from the bonusphere.
Against Duke he’s likely to see RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish as primary defenders. It’s a big challenge for him and also for his defenders who are taller to be sure but who have to move their feet and avoid foul trouble. It’s very different than shooting against Braxton Beverly and Markell Johnson.
With Jerome out last game, Bennett moved Clark in alongside Guy in the backcourt and De’Andre Hunter, Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite started up front.
It’s a mark of how good Bennett’s system is that he can start a lineup that basically has two scorers and not really struggle. Guy and Hunter are legitimate offensive talents but the other three are there for other reasons.
That’s less true for Clark, but he’s 5-9. It works well for him on defense but not necessarily on offense where size is an issue, especially against Duke. The smallest Blue Devil starter is 6-3 Tre Jones, also the team’s best defender, and after that, everyone is 6-7 and up.
For Virginia having Jerome is probably critical. As Dean Smith noted, it’s not surprising for a team to win the game after a player is out with an injury but it’s really hard to sustain over time.
We love the way Jerome runs his team. He’s a wonderful leader and has a real knack for clutch plays (Duke fans learned this last year in Cameron).
There is an argument going around that Virginia has an advantage because it starts Hunter (6-9), Salt (6-10) and Diakite (6-7).
It really doesn't matter that much.
Oh, it might in an individual matchup, say Barrett driving on Salt, but part of the point of the Pack Line is to avoid individual confrontations and hit with 2-3 defenders. The idea is to slow the game down, force bad shots and, ideally, to sucker a team into firing up threes all over the place - and even those are pushed back enough to lower the percentages.
We don’t have access to Bennett’s war plans but we suspect that’s part of it: they know that, say, Barrett shoots say 50% from 15 feet but maybe 43% from just a few inches back.
And once you lower the percentages and slow the pace down, you have a real advantage after you get the lead. The other team, not used to this, tries to shoot its way back in and just falls farther behind.
And the Pack Line has one more intangible asset. When you watch Virginia on TV, it looks slow and boring but in person, the defense is just vicious. It’s so intense that you spend most of your energy just trying to work against it for 30 second bursts.
Typically, a team spends more effort on defense than it does on offense but when you play Virginia, you’re forced to expend vastly more energy on the offensive end than you normally would.
And of course you still have to play defense and in the last five minutes, a lot of teams find out that Virginia has stolen their legs.
So while you’re sucking wind, Virginia is calmly and effectively taking you apart.
The intensity is admirable and we really admire the culture Bennett has built. The players seem to feel a real sense of family, and they rise and fall together.
This was never more clear, ironically, than it was against UMBC last spring.
Without Hunter, the game was a disaster for Virginia.
The aftermath was anything but.
Bennett was composed and graceful. He spoke of life lessons and how he thought his players would grow from the experience.
As tempting as it was to be gleeful as Virginia collapsed, Bennett changed that completely and if we were impressed from this distance, imagine how it must have affected his players.
Losing to Maryland always sucked but mostly because the fans were so nasty. Losing to UNC has always been bad but now it’s different because they cheated so wildly for so long and then walked.
Losing to Virginia?
It’s kind of like losing to Notre Dame. You know it’s going to be a tough game and there’s a chance those guys could win and they get their share.
Winning beats losing but losing to a program like Virginia doesn’t sting nearly as bad as losing to some other teams we can think of. It’s an honorable program that, as far as we can tell, does everything the right way.
As ACC fans we’re very proud of them. But we still want to beat them again, preferably badly.