Perhaps the most anticipated faceoff of the entire season so far is finally happening on Saturday evening as No. 1 Duke, previously humbled and reeling off a disgruntling loss to a 17-point underdog in Syracuse at home, is feening to bounce back with a home victory against the No. 4 team in the country and the best team in the country that stops you from scoring the basketball.
No easy task to complete, and what’s worse, is that Duke starting point guard Tre Jones may have to sit this one out to nurse a shoulder injury, in which doctors listed as day-to-day.
Though he arrived at Friday’s walkthrough unassisted from a sling to the surprise of his Blue Devil comrades, it’s looking more than likely Duke will be without the quarterback of their offense for the most significant game of the year. It’s looking increasingly likely that they may have additional difficulty in moving the rock as Jones currently leads the ACC in assists per game (5.9 APG) as well.
No fear, for Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett will be there to compromise for their unavailable guard. Lucky for them, the third member of the highly-acclaimed fab four will be there to help them out. Missing the ‘Cuse game from an illness, sharpshooter Cam Reddish returns, giving Duke a much-needed perimeter presence in attempting to break down Virginia’s vaunted half-court defense. Duke’s shooting from deep was worse than abysmal in their loss against Syracuse and they need the knockdown shooting Reddish provides.
This will be an interesting matchup for an assemblage of reasons. Evidently, this isn’t the last time these two will square off. Some would assume their paths would cross ahead of January into the ACC Tournament in early March and, assuming the two are still alive later on, in the Final Four. Maybe earlier.
Needless to say, Saturday’s battle of the two top-5 teams will either be a dud and complete scalping, or an instant classic. So here are 5 things to be attentive to when tuning into ESPN on Saturday at 6 p.m. ET.
1. Who runs Point for the Blue Devils?
It’s been quite apparent that Duke will sorely miss their guard for this game. Much of the admiration given to Tony Bennett’s Cavaliers has much to do with their superior and exceptionally-suffocating defense, which has kept all opponents under 50 points for the entire season up to this point.
Yet offensively, Virginia’s efficient offense has complimented their stifling defense, scoring around an average of 74 points a game. Leading Hoos’ scorer and senior guard Kyle Guy prioritizes on-ball pressure but loves to score the rock from deep, shooting an incredible 46% behind the arc.
Jones currently leads the ACC in assists per game (5.9 APG) and is by a mile their best on-ball defender. As the gorilla glue to the Duke project that is their 2018-19 campaign, not having him suit up for the Blue Devils spells trouble if he’s scratched from the lineup as Guy’s primary matchup.
Also, Jones is the culprit for Duke’s pace and style of pace-and-space play which makes the Cameron Crazies that much crazier during home games, as he starts a majority of the fastbreaks in transition that usually conclude in buckets down low or lobs up top by Zion.
Mike Krzyzewski is the master adjustor though, and that statement isn’t up for debate. Expect to see some Jordan Goldwire in the starting lineup, though RJ Barrett and Cam Reddish will bring the ball down the floor and run the offense to the best of their ability.
2. Cam Reddish’s Return Is Big
Now known for his late-game heroics against Florida State a week ago, Cam Reddish is feeling much better after taking a sick day for Duke’s home game against Syracuse. They needed his outside shooting bad, with the team’s late threes coming by way of bench big man Jack White and third-string guard Jack O’Connell.
Now that Reddish is back, he provides Coach K with another dimension of drive-kick offense. So, best believe Duke won’t shoot 9/43 again at least now that Reddish is back, as he is the team’s best three-point shooter when he’s on the floor. Tony Bennett will do the much in his power to shut him down, starting the chess match between him and Coach K if he starts knocking his shots down early while opening up the floor for Zion and RJ to get loose.
3. Can the Virginia Backcourt Push and Control the Tempo?
This is no easy pushover ACC opponent like a Clemson or a slightly competitive but not as frightening team like Florida State. Duke may be without their on-floor signal caller but they thrive in scoring the ball from getting out and running in transition. The problem is, they can score in the halfcourt, but not as well. They scored a good amount of points off Syracuse turnovers (only 22 to be exact), but just 11 fastbreak points for the entire 40-minute stretch. Transition wise, that was their worst effort all season.
If you’re Tony Bennett, you love that statistic. The opportunity to stifle that motion offense even more than what Jim Boeheim’s Orange has to put a smile on Kyle Guy and backcourt cohort Ty Jerome’s faces. Yes, this is still a monstrous Big 3 and each of their bucket scorers average over 22 points a game. But, by stopping the fastbreak opportunities chock full of big lobs to Zion and RJ by keeping them to just their motion halfcourt offense, a game of runs could turn into a game of favor for the Hoos.
4. Can Virginia Use Their Size to Cause Trouble Down Low?
Duke finished at the cup 16 times in 25 layup attempts against the lofty ‘Cuse big men. That’s the piece of interest if you’re Tony Bennett, especially since you have two very talented bigs under the bucket. The versatile Mamadi Diatke is a problem down low and could be a matchup nightmare for Coach K who will make minutes adjustments accordingly. Braxton Key, who comes off the bench, is a stretch big who can knock down the three ball and leads his Cavaliers in rebounds. DeAndre Hunter is both a beast on the block who can equally attack off the dribble.
Saying it is not going to be easy for the rotation of Williamson, Javin Delaurier, Marques Bolden and Jack White is an understatement.
5. How will the Duke Freshmen Respond?
From what we’ve seen, the touted core of young NBA Draft prospects in Duke uniforms can show what they’re made of when they enter the gauntlet of pressure. They’ve been tested by the likes of adversity masked as injury when Zion went down with an eye injury against former No.9 Florida State last Saturday. RJ Barrett knocked down the game-winner on an open three with 2.8 seconds to go, escaping what could have been a tough loss in their first hostile environment.
The absence bug bit them in their unexpected home loss to Syracuse, losing Tre Jones to a sprained AC joint in his right shoulder and finding themselves ill-prepared and flat-footed in having to replace Cam Reddish. Now, with their place among the top 10 in jeopardy, all eyes are on these freshmen to put the country on notice that they are College Basketball’s best.
Tony Bennett is no stranger to close game against Coach K. He narrowly escaped with a win last year in Cameron and was able to get back a majority of his Seniors in Deandre Hunter, Kyle Guy, and Ty Jerome, who all participated in handing Duke that home loss just a year ago. With the best defense in the country and experience to their benefit, It’ll be interesting to see how these first-rounders attack this adversity.
Be sure to catch Duke vs. Virginia on Sat., January 19 on ESPN at 6 p.m. ET.