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Next Up - Virginia

As the Cavaliers come to town

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NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Clemson
Jan 16, 2021; Clemson, South Carolina, USA; Virginia Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett talks with guard Kihei Clark (0) during the first half against the Clemson Tigers at Littlejohn Coliseum. 
Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Next up for Duke is a matchup with Virginia and that’s always an interesting time.

Since Tony Bennett arrived, Virginia has become a consistent power, right there with Duke, arguably ahead of UNC now, able to win the ACC regular season, ACC titles and an unforgettable NCAA championship.

  • Date: 2/20
  • Time: 8:00
  • Venue: Cameron Indoor Stadium
  • Video: ESPN

You could argue that Virginia’s 2018-19 NCAA championship - the last one anyone has won since last year’s tournament was canceled - was the most remarkable title since Villanova’s win in 1985. Maybe Jim Valvano’s run to the 1983 championship was as dramatic. However you look at it, Virginia’s will stand the test of time.

Things have been slightly more erratic since. Last year the Cavs finished 23-7 in the Covid-shortened season. They weren’t likely to defend their title but still finished second in the ACC regular season, which was impressive since they lost Travis Guy, Ty Jerome, De’Andre Hunter and Jack Salt from the championship team.

This year, to date UVA is 15-4 overall and 11-2 in the conference, still in first place technically with Florida State right behind.

Both teams have two losses but FSU has played three less games overall.

Last year the knock on Virginia with so many great players having graduated or gone pro, was offense. This year, it’s been defense, which is weird since Bennett has made Virginia an incredible defensive presence. But it’s undeniably been off this year, at least at times.

Not the offense though.

Virginia still has Kihei Clark and the diminutive point guard is still what Bennett called him when he saw him in high school: a winner.

Marquette transfer Sam Hauser has been an immense addition offensively. The 6-9 senior is Virginia’s leading scorer and rebounder with 14.8 ppg and 6.9 rpg. He's also an excellent three point shooter. But here’s the thing: Trey Murphy, Jay Huff and Tomas Woldenstae all shoot a better percentage from deep than does Hauser.

Which is to say that Virginia can light it up when they want to. And while people think that Virginia’s a very slow team, that’s not entirely true. Certainly Virginia is deliberate and prefers a slower pace. But the Cavaliers are also incredibly precise. And when they need to score in a hurry, they do it very, very well. We refer you to the end of the Purdue game in the last NCAA tourney for example #1. Then there was the eight-points-in-seven-seconds to beat Louisville.

Despite Bennett’s brilliance though, at times the wheels can really come off for Virginia. It’s happened at least three times in post-season play: against Syracuse, Florida and most notably, UMBC.

And it happened this week at Florida State, with Virginia losing 81-60. It would probably be better for Duke if that wasn’t the last game the Cavs had played but there’s not much you can do about that.

The Blue Devils should be in good spirits following two big wins over NC State and Wake Forest. Virginia though is on a different level and presents some serious challenges for the young Devils.

You can start inside. Mark Williams has been terrific for Duke but against 7-1 Jay Huff, who likes to shoot threes, Williams could have a problem: following Huff out means opening up any man defense. And if he’s not shooting threes, Hauser is likely to be.

Clark is diminutive but he’s crafty and quick and could get his defender in foul trouble. Jordan Goldwire could end up on him quite a bit.

One of Bennett’s great talents as a coach is understanding who will thrive in his system and he appears to have found one in Reece Beekman, who is terrific. The 6-3 freshman has moved into the lineup and will likely start for the rest of his Virginia career. Keep an eye on him. He’s really promising.

Virginia also starts 6-9 junior Trey Murphy, a transfer from Rice and like Huff, a native of Durham. We can’t remember an ACC team coming to Cameron and starting two Durham natives.

Virginia passed on him in high school because he was very thin but at Rice, he filled out and became an attractive talent. He’s added some offense to Virginia but his defense has had to catch up.

So Duke will have to defend several three point shooters while minding cutters and keeping Matthew Hurt out of foul trouble. He’s as good a shooter as anyone in this game but at times has been foul prone. Duke will need him.

And Wendell Moore, while a solid defender and capable overall, has a tendency to get himself into situations where there’s nowhere to go with the ball and gets a turnover. That’s dangerous against this team. Plus Duke’s freshmen guards DJ Steward and Jeremy Roach will have to contend with a very frustrating defense that yields very little.

In short, while Bennett’s meticulous system isn’t as good as this year as it usually is, since he’s got three new starters, it’s still sturdy and challenging. And while Duke is the only ACC team that makes Virginia nervous, the Blue Devils are still young and have been inconsistent. They’re clearly improving and could certainly win but this game will be very challenging.

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