There are more than 5,000 college basketball games between opening night in mid-November and the start of the NCAA tournament.
Saturday afternoon’s clash between second-ranked Virginia and fourth-ranked Duke has a chance to be the best of all of them.
One one side is a Cavaliers team that boasts college basketball’s stingiest defense, a disciplined yet disruptive pack-line man-to-man that thrives on slowing the tempo to a crawl, pressuring the ball and surrendering nothing easy at the rim. Virginia is holding ACC opponents to a meager 0.83 points per possession this season and limited 18th-ranked Clemson to 13 points in the game’s final 26 minutes last Tuesday night in Charlottesville.
On the other side is a Blue Devils team that features the nation’s second-most efficient offense, a fast-paced, multifaceted attack powered by a bevy of future first-round draft picks. Duke has eclipsed 80 points in every conference game it has played so far this season by force-feeding prized freshman Marvin Bagley III, attacking relentlessly in transition and turning dominance on the offensive boards into second-chance baskets.
Plenty is at stake for both teams too given that this is the lone meeting of the season between maybe the ACC’s two best teams.
If Virginia wins, the Cavaliers would improve to 20-1 overall and 9-0 in conference play, which would put them two or more games clear of every other ACC title contender. They also would have an inside track to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament barring a February collapse against a schedule that still includes two games against Louisville and visits to Miami, Syracuse and Florida State.
If Duke wins, the Blue Devils would improve to 19-2 overall and 7-2 in conference play, which would leave them just a game behind Virginia in the ACC title chase. They would also be in great shape for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament given with two victories over top 10 teams already in the bag and chances for quality wins remaining against North Carolina, Clemson and Louisville.
One of the keys to Saturday’s game will be tempo. Can Duke turn deflections and long rebounds into transition opportunities? Or will the Blue Devils repeatedly have to walk the ball up court and try to score against a set Virginia defense?
When Duke does have to try to score against Virginia’s pack-line defense, much of what it encounters will be familiar.
The central premise of Tony Bennett’s defensive scheme is to wall off the paint and force opponents into a steady diet of contested jump shots. Virginia disrupts ball screens by hedging and recovering and funnels drivers into the help defense. The Cavaliers also deny all post-entry passes and send a double team if an opposing players gets the ball on the low block.
One aspect of Virginia’s defense that’s different this season is that the Cavaliers are forcing opponents to turn the ball over on nearly a quarter of their possessions. Combine that with Virginia’s ability to keep the tempo at a glacial pace, and that puts tremendous pressure on opponents to make their few scoring opportunities count.
The lone weakness this Virginia defense has this season is that it surrenders more offensive rebounds than any other Cavaliers team during the Bennett era. That’s a major concern against Duke because both Bagley and fellow big man Wendell Carter are two of the most vociferous offensive rebounders in the country.
So much of the attention Saturday will focus on Duke trying to score against Virginia that it’s easy to forget that half the game will be spent on the other side of the floor. Expect to see Duke go back and forth between man and zone and Virginia try to use ball screens to try to get favorable matchups for its guards and force the Blue Devils’ big men to defend in space.
That the lone matchup of the season between Virginia and Duke is at Cameron Indoor Stadium is an advantage for the Blue Devils. The Cavaliers last won in Durham in 1995, though they have come close several times during the Bennett era.
All that provides a compelling backdrop for one of college basketball’s must-see games of the year.
On one side will be the nation’s preseason No. 1 team. On the other will be a team that has climbed from unranked in the preseason to the top of the ACC standings.
The contrast of styles will be fascinating to watch.
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