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Next Up - Virginia

Virginia is improving and very capable of knocking Duke off again.

Florida State v Duke
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 19: AJ Griffin #21 of the Duke Blue Devils defends a pass from Cam’Ron Fletcher #21to Jalen Warley #1 of the Florida State Seminoles during the second half of their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 19, 2022 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 88-70.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images
  • Date: 1/23
  • Time: 7:00
  • Venue: John Paul Jones Coliseum
  • Video: ESPN

After the Duke-Virginia game in Cameron, we left in a really sour mood. Not so much because we lost to Virginia, we thought, but rather that we had to play a team that plays the way Virginia plays. Because, we thought, it sucks the joy out of the game. It’s sort of like Muhammad Ali doing rope-a-dope so he didn’t have to come out and face George Foreman until he was ready.

It seemed, at the time, like the rules should skew against what Virginia does.

And maybe they should. It’s certainly effective, but it does nothing to advance the beauty or joy of the game.

But none of that meant that Kadin Shedrick should have hit 8-8 from the field. None of that meant that Jayden Gardner should have gotten 17 against Duke’s much bigger interior. None of that meant that Francisco Caffaro should have doubled Mark Williams on rebounds. And certainly none of it meant that Jeremy Roach should have been so unprepared to be stripped under Virginia’s basket with the game on the line. And obviously nothing about Virginia’s defense let Reece Beekman get the ball for a last-second three point shot that won the game and allowed Virginia to celebrate on Duke’s floor.

What it came down to, really, was a cardinal sin during the Mike Krzyzewski era: Virginia was tougher - a lot tougher - than Duke was. Smarter too.

And if we’ve learned anything during Coach K’s time in Durham, we know that really, really stuck in his craw. You can lose a game if the other team is better and you did your very best. That’s okay. But letting another team thoroughly out-tough you? Out-smart you? In Cameron?

That’s absolutely not. The word that’s been used most often is unacceptable.

So while we don’t have any idea how Duke is approaching this game, we’re reasonably sure that the last game has come up, if only in staff meetings.

The truth is, as easy as it is to dislike Virginia’s style and physicality, they pointed out a weakness that Ohio State also pointed out: this Duke team doesn’t always respond well to physical play.

Well, they’ll have to Wednesday night because Virginia is going to be physical again. Everyone knows it.

When reporter Mike Barber asked Coach K about the “chess match” with Virginia, he summed it up pretty well: “I don’t know. I don’t know how to play chess very well. I’ve always been intrigued why people call it a chess match. People aren’t banging the hell out of each other in a chess match.”

Virginia will certainly bang Duke. The question is: will Duke bang back? Without fouling?

It’s an open question. Mark Williams has gotten better about it but he’s not necessarily built for this sort of game. He’s still got a lot of filling out to do. Paolo Banchero is built for it but he didn’t bring it in Durham and doesn’t seem to like being pushed around. AJ Griffin has immense potential but he too has shied away from physical play. Roach is tough but he’s slight.

After the last several games, no one should have any doubt about Wendell Moore’s inherent toughness. Nor would we doubt the toughness of Theo John or Trevor Keels or, for that matter, Joey Baker or Bates Jones.

But collectively, Duke is going to have to match, and possibly exceed Virginia’s toughness. If not, they’ll probably go into the last few minutes of the game under Virginia’s terms.

And as we’ve discussed before, if you let that happen, Virginia is extremely precise in those situations and, like a python, they’ve squeezed you to the point of exhaustion. It’s very hard to change the outcome that late, not just physically but also psychologically: they’ve claimed the high ground and they will dictate the terms of the engagement.

It occurs to us also, a bit late in this preview, that we’re writing this like it’s the Virginia we’ve seen over the last several years and of course it really hasn’t been.

The reality is that UVA has declined every year since the glorious to the national title in 2019. In 2019, they finished 35-3, in 2020, 23-7, last year 18-7 and so far this year, 17-10. You have to factor Covid in of course but still, it’s a perceptible if reversible decline both in wins and talent.

Now? If they beat Duke, they have a chance of sweeping the last three (FSU at home and Louisville on the road follow Duke) and who knows about the ACC Tournament or beyond.

Still, it’s a considerable decline not least of all in talent, masked to some extent by Tony Bennett’s ability to teach his system. Last year he still had Sam Hauser, Jay Huff and Trey Murphy.

This year he had to scramble a bit, bringing in transfers Gardner (ECU) and Armaan Franklin (Indiana) and he has a solid backcourt with Beekman and Kihei Clark.

Virginia really struggled early, losing to Navy, getting killed by Houston and losing on the road to James Madison. They got absolutely hammered at home by Clemson, lost on the road to a mediocre UNC team and got kicked pretty good by a historically bad NC State squad.

But they have improved and have won five out of the last six, with the only loss being at Virginia Tech.

A lot of that is due to Bennett’s brilliance as a teacher and communicator, and part of it is due to leadership. And by leadership, we mean Clark.

For some reason, a segment of Virginia fandom really dislikes him. They think he shoots too much or something, or that he’s not reliable.

They’re idiots.

The reason he shoots “too much” is because he has less talented teammates now. When he had them, he was happy to give them the ball because that was the most likely way he could help his team win.

He’s doing what an upperclass captain should do, which is to take responsibility. It’d be nice if he was 6-6 but he’s not. He’s 5-8, maybe.

We really admire him. As Bennett said when he first saw him play, that kid’s a winner. If Virginia fans are that unhappy he can play for Duke any time. He’s vastly underrated.

Draft Kings has Duke by -4.5. We’ll see how that works out.