Well-rested and coming off a thumping of overmatched Boston College, the Duke Blue Devils head into the homestretch of the regular season with a huge week ahead of them. Two very difficult ballgames await, starting Thursday night at 9 PM on Mr. Jefferson's lawn in Charlottesville against the Virginia Cavaliers. Don't look any further ahead than the game right in front of us, because it's likely to be very tough, and if the team is anything less than fully focused on Virginia, they will lose.
UVA is having its best season under fourth year coach Tony Bennett, as they sit at 19-8 overall and a solid 9-5 in conference, tied for third with UNC. Moreover, they are 7-0 in ACC home games and 16-1 overall at John Paul Jones Arena. The Cavaliers made the NCAA Tournament last year, but are widely regarded as a bubble team for this year's Big Dance at this point. Why? One reason may be the Jekyll-and-Hyde nature of their season. They did have a real good win early in the year, at Wisconsin. That is tough to do. They did beat UNC at home, but that doesn't carry the same cache this year as it normally does, and they beat State at home too. But any shine from those victories has been diminished by a couple of bad losses -- out of conference they were beaten by George Mason and Delaware early, and at Christmastime had a truly ghastly loss to Old Dominion (#323 RPI). In conference they have been bested by Wake, Clemson, and Georgia Tech, as well as UNC and Miami, all on the road. Currently the Wahoos sit at#75 in the RPI with a strength of schedule of 135. The committee will like their 6-2 record against the Top 100. Their 4-5 record against RPI 101-150? Not so much.
Add it up and Virginia really needs this win. Get it, and their case for an at-large bid is much, much stronger. After Duke, their remaining schedule looks like this: at BC, at FSU, and home to Maryland. None of those people provide a chance to impress. This is it.
So how good are these guys? Well, they don't have anybody like Mike Scott, the star forward whose physicality was so difficult for so many teams to deal with, including Duke, and who graduated last year. They also lost big man Assane Sene and shooter Sammy Zeglinski. But the Hoos are still a Tony Bennett team. Meaning they prefer to play slow. Meaning their offensive numbers are not very good -- 65 ppg, 10th in the league, though they do shoot it pretty well. And they don't turn the ball over much -- 11.1 per game, tied with Duke for best in the league. Meaning their defensive numbers are excellent -- allowing only 54 ppg, best in the league, and 38.5% FG shooting, third best in the ACC, and only 29.8% from 3 point land, second best in the league behind the Blue Devils. They're second in the ACC in scoring margin, behind Duke, with a +11.1. On the boards, they're the worst in the ACC on the offensive glass, and in the middle of the pack in rebounding margin, though they're better than Duke in that department.
The Wahoos' top scorer is 6'6" junior guard Joe Harris at 16.6 ppg, and he does it while shooting just shy of 50% and a league-leading 46.4% from 3 point land. Pretty good. And he's really consistent, scoring in double figures in all but three games this year, and two of those three were blowout victories where he didn't play his usual minutes. 6'8" 234 pound forward Akil Mitchell chips in 12.6 ppg, but he also shines on the boards, where he's third in the ACC with 8.7 per, with 2.6 of those being offensive. Physical dude. In terms of league leaders featured by the Cavs, that's pretty much it. Not much else -- the rest is by committee.
Senior Jontel Evans starts at the point, and he's a pass-first point, a good assist man, averaging 5.3 per game. Not much of a threat to score, getting only 4.5 ppg on 42% shooting, and he's lousy at the line for a little guy too. Evans suffered a stress fracture in his foot prior to the season and was in and out of the lineup in the pre-conference schedule as he tweaked it again in December. He's played the whole ACC schedule though, without incident. Even though his numbers (other than his assists) are nothing to write home about, Evans is a steadying, veteran influence on this team, getting the ball to guys where they like it; they're definitely a better team with the senior running the show.
Paul Jesperson, a 6'6" soph, starts on the wing. He shoots 40% from 3 point land, but he's pretty streaky, and doesn't exactly stuff the stat sheet otherwise. I will say though that the season-long 39% shooter has been better lately; in his last five games he's shooting 54%. Many believe the most talented and athletic Cavalier is 6'6" freshman Justin Anderson. The former top 50 recruit had originally chosen Maryland, but reconsidered after Sweaty Gary exited the stage. Anderson is averaging 7 ppg in 22 minutes, but the lefty has struggled with his shot, hitting only 41%. But he can D up, and that means he can play for Bennett.
Like I said, a lot of what Virginia does is done by committee. Bennett plays 10 guys at least ten minutes per game, but most of the kids he brings in off the bench are just that, kids. The only true big off the bench is freshman Mike Tobey, who scores 6.5 ppg and grabs 2.6 boards in only 13 minutes. Good production there. Freshman Teven Jones spells Evans at the point for about 15 minutes. More freshmen: 6'3" Taylor Barnette is a three point threat, as is 6'8" Evan Nolte, though Nolte sees twice as many minutes as does Barnette. The graybeard of the bench guys is versatile 6'8" soph Darion Atkins, who does a little bit of everything in his 18 minutes of run.
Nothing is going to come easy for Duke in this game. Evans will present a real challenge to Quinn Cook, as he moves his feet well on D and doesn't make it easy to force turnovers at the other end. Harris is a deadeye shooter, so Duke -- probably Rasheed Sulaimon primarily -- is going to have to fight through a lot of screens, switch when necessary to limit his looks, and make him work for his points. Mitchell is not tall, but he's physical inside. Duke's guys better be ready for that.
It's Virginia's style that makes playing them so difficult. They play deliberately. They play smart. They can play physical basketball. They're disciplined. Defensively, they make it difficult for you to get to the spots you like, the spots you're comfortable on the floor. It is rarely a free-flowing game with the Wahoos; the games are usually tight and tense, like fighting a good counterpuncher. Duke is going to have to be patient. On offense, we're going to have to probably spend some shot clock searching for something good. On defense, we're going to have to defend sometimes for 32 or 33 or 34 seconds, because they're going to wait for the best shot they can, counting on their opponent to lose interest. That kind of focus which is necessary can wear a team down mentally, and we're going to have to be aware of that. For that reason, as well as the fact that the coaches know Miami comes calling less than 48 hours after this one is done, I would expect our bench guys to get significant minutes in this game -- gotta stay fresh mentally against a team like this, not just physically.
Add to this the fact that this is a huge game for Virginia in their quest to return to the tournament, and it's huge anyway because the Duke game at home is huge for everyone, and the Blue Devils are going to be in for a battle. It would be our best road win of the year were we to get it done in C-ville. Better lace em up, boys.