Game Preview: Duke

We’ll know that Virginia basketball has really reached college basketball’s elites when Duke fans take as much notice of our name on the schedule as we do of theirs.

(Photo: Google image “bad Krzyzewski”)

It’s probably the inferiority complex baked firmly into my psyche from two and a half decades of Virginia fanhood, but I feel like the underdog when Duke shows up — even at home. The regular season record over the last four years and the ACC regular season titles (a feat that never has and never will carry the respect it deserves for anyone) have emboldened me some but still aren’t quite enough when Mr. Team USA, his two NCAA titles in the time Tony Bennett’s been at Virginia alone, and his 35–11 record against us over the 25 seasons since I started watching are roaming the opposing sideline.

Tony Bennett boasts a .500 or better record at Virginia in games against 13 of our 15 (counting Maryland) ACC foes. The 14th is UNC, where Bennett’s 5–6 record suggests a series where the game could go any way on any day. The record against Duke during the Bennett era is 2–8 — the worst by far.

The margin has narrowed over the last five seasons. The wins help. Joe Harris scored 36 and bulled us to a win at JPJ in 2013, and the 2014 ACC Tournament final was (seriously) one of the best days of my life and a set of memories that I will remember forever. Meanwhile, the losses have gotten closer: the last four have been decided by a total of 14 points and one decisive possession each, which is a net positive even if reliving said possessions (from memory: a missed Mike Scott three from the corner, an Amile Jefferson offensive board and Sulaimon three followed by a bad pass to the corner, a Quinn Cook three, and then the infamous Grayson Allen double-travel) still feel like kicks straight to the dick.

This year’s match-up features two retooled teams. Brandon Ingram and his otherworldly stretch from last year in Durham are gone, and Duke is still trying to make sense of a roster that looked to be stuffed with talent when the season started, something that’s excusable when you look through their litany of injuries, some distractions (Grayson Allen’s long, strange trip and Krzyzewski’s medical leave), a dash of underachievement, and the age-old difficulty of balancing time for talented kids with the necessary minutes for established and accomplished veterans. Duke was written off by some after starting 3–4 in conference play, but has won five straight since to sit at 8–4 in ACC play as I write this, tied with us for the third spot. You can’t kill them, you can just keep running.

Two things have propelled Duke’s ascent this month: their roster being as hale and hearty as it has been all year (only reserve center Chase Jeter remains sidelined, which isn’t really a big deal) and having Grayson Allen spend more of his time at point guard.

Allen’s move to point guard makes sense. First and most simply, he’s good at it. The attention he draws running spread pick and rolls with Jayson Tatum while Luke Kennard (15th nationally in ORTG and maybe the best catch-and-shoot guy in the country) rotates to the wing and Matt Jones (37% 3PT in ACC games) heads for the corner is scary. Secondly, with Frank Jackson not quite ready for full time run at the position, this gets Duke’s best five onto the court together and allows Krzyzewski to deploy Jackson as a change-of-pace for 15–25 minutes off the bench; a role he’s better suited to for now.

Duke has a lot of options and a coach that knows how to deploy them, which is a rare combination in the college game. They’re scoring 1.14 points per possession in ACC games (second), thanks to an ACC-best 55.8 EFG percentage that is fueled by second-place rankings shooting both twos and threes. They’re going to try to get up the court before we’re set — even on makes — which has long been a Krzyzewski trick to beat the Pack Line. In the half court, they run a lot of NBA looks: horns sets and elevator screens to isolate Allen and Tatum against off balance defenders and a lot of floppy action (stop giggling) to get looks for Luke Kennard, whose 6'6'’ frame allows him to shoot over most opposing guards. There will also be the aforementioned pick and rolls — lots of them — led by Allen, with either Tatum (who is a mismatch as a roll man) or Amile Jefferson (who is a great passer for a big) serving different roles as the screener.

Threes have always been a big deal in Durham, but they’ve become an bigger deal to Duke lately. In four of the five games that make up this winning streak, they’ve gotten 45% of their points from threes (they made five of 12 in the fifth). Luke Kennard, already no slouch at 45.9% for the season, has made 15 of 28 during this stretch, but Allen (22–48 for 45.8%), Jackson (6–14, 42.9%), and Tatum (6–16, 37.5%) have all increased their accuracy, and Allen has increased his volume as well, taking 9.6 per game instead of the 6.3 he averaging in 18 games prior. With Duke allowing a miserly 15–76 mark (27.6%) over this five game stretch, they’ve outscored their opponents 152–45 (or by an average of 21.4 points per game) from the three point line. That’s kind of a lot.

Kennard (20 ppg, in spitting distance of 50/45/85) leads five Blue Devils averaging in double figures, with Allen (15.9), Tatum (15.6), Jefferson (11.3), and Jackson (10.2) behind him.

Given everything you just read, it’s a good thing that teams can score on Duke. Just four of their 12 ACC opponents have failed to score a point per possession, and they pay for the offensive versatility provided by the heavy minutes allotted to their four wing lineup by being so-so at best at defending around the rim (their two point defense is 12th in the ACC: 52.4%) and securing defensive rebounds (71.2%). One negative to all of the rotation shuffling they’ve had to deal with is a lack of continuity, which I think is part of why they haven’t really consistently forced turnovers (a middling 16.3% in ACC play).

One positive from the four wing look is that Duke has been able to extend their half court defense to pick up behind the three point line. It’s working for them: ACC opponents attempt threes at a very low rate (just 26% of their shots), convert them at a league-low 32%, and assist on just 44% of their baskets.

London Perrantes, Devon Hall, and Marial Shayok need to attack the front of the rim. It’s been working for them of late (whistles or not), and it’s where Duke struggles the most: they’ve been giving up 61% shooting around the rim. Settling for jumpers (especially as London did in the second half and OTs in Blacksburg) will only set Duke up with the kind of transition chances that they’re most comfortable with. Shayok in particular should be aggressive. He’s the guy on this team (other than the Guy) that can go get a bucket, and it feels like the rest of the roster feeds off of it after he does. One plus for us is that Mike Krzyzewski is not a big fan of going zone, meaning that maybe we’ll get to play a game without someone throwing a 3–2 at us.

On the other end, Duke is a team that makes sense for this year’s uncharacteristically switchy defense. CTB said yesterday that Duke always tries to spread us out and then capitalize on the gaps. The key will be getting back, staying true to our typical positioning, and then making smart, crisp close outs to contest on shooters. It’s tempting to say that we should extend the Pack Line to account for Duke’s three point expertise, but it’s a bad idea because Allen and Tatum are willing drivers and will live in the lane.

It’ll be interesting to see how we use Isaiah Wilkins. I expect to see four guards (with Shayok and Hall on Kennard and Tatum) a lot, but I expect us to start this game with Wilkins on the significantly quicker Tatum and to try to ride it out as long as possible. If Zay can goad Tatum into taking jumpers instead of driving past him, that’s a win. Tatum can shoot, but I’d rather him try that then give us what he gave Kennedy Meeks in Chapel Hill.

Virginia Eights:
G: London Perrantes — 6'2'’ sr #32 
London taking 22 shots in Blacksburg felt alright. The problem was quality, not quantity. He missed his last seven threes, with many of them coming off the dribble with some contest early enough in the shot clock to be called questionable. Duke’s long reach on D smothered him in Durham last year: it was the only game of his 2016 season without a three point attempt.
G: Devon Hall — 6'5'’ jr. #0

We’re going to need three or four guys to get into double figures to get past Duke, and Devon will probably be one if it happens. Hall is just eight of 22 over our last three games, and has cracked double digits just once in that span. 
F: Marial Shayok — 6'6'’ jr #4
Shayok seemed to kind of find it against Tech. He went long periods without being all that noticeable, but scored 11 points on eight shots in 21 minutes. After a hot streak pulled his three point percentage up, he’s made just one (and attempted just six) over our last six games. 
F: Isaiah Wilkins — 6'7'’ jr #21
Wilkins’s five offensive boards against VT marked the third time in our last four games that he’s pulled down at least five. He’s up to 12.4% for the season (89th in the country). 
F: Jack Salt — 6'11'’ so #33
Good: Jack has 10 rebounds in 33 minutes over our last two games. Bad: he’s increasingly stone-handed on offense and hasn’t seen 20 minutes in four February games. Salt’s screens, his tenacity on the offensive glass, and his one on one defense on real bigs are great, but we’d be so much better with a more dynamic big in his spot. 
G: Darius Thompson — 6'4'’ jr #51
DT played 27 minutes in Blacksburg, scoring four and adding three assists and three steals. He’s in a 1–10 slump from deep and doesn’t attack enough for a player with his vertical leap, but I still like what he brings as a point guard to the second unit. 
G: Kyle Guy — 6'3'’ fr #5
Guy only took two shots (with one being the tying jumper late) in the second half and overtimes on Sunday, which feels like a mistake given the first half he turned in. This is a player that can win games with his offense.
G: Ty Jerome — 6'5'’ fr #11
Liked Jerome hitting two more threes and turning in 24 minutes without a turnover. Didn’t like him getting the ball with the responsibility of clinching the game from the line, though I suppose the experience will be good for him.

Duke Eights: 
G: Grayson Allen — 6'5'’ jr #3
Allen has attempted at least ten threes three times in Duke’s last six games and at least seven in all six, making 39% of his 57 tries in that span. Also: Duke is 6–1 this season when he records at least five assists. 
G: Luke Kennard — 6'6'’ so #5
Kennard is ridiculous. A shooter’s shooter. He’s hitting 55% from the midrange, 46% from three, and while he almost never goes all the way to the rim, he’s making 63% there. He’s not explosive, but he’s got a million twists and turns to get himself daylight, like Antawn Jamison’s game extrapolated to 15 to 25 feet from the rim. 
F: Matt Jones — 6'5'’ sr #13
I swear Jones was the guy who pulled Christian Laettner away from Aminu Timberlake, but I checked ESPN, and he’s only in his fourth year. It wasn’t him, it just feels like he’s been in Durham for 20 years. 
F: Jayson Tatum — 6'8'’ fr #0
Tatum scored in double digits in the first 12 games of his career, but I read something recently that opined that he’s played better over the last five, where he’s taken a clear back seat to Allen and Kennard instead of trying to be the first option every time. He might present the biggest threat individually, because I’m still not sure who guards him. 
F: Amile Jefferson — 6'9'’ sr #21
Jefferson is Duke’s lone line of interior defense: he grabs almost a quarter of available defensive rebounds and blocks almost five percent of opposing looks when he’s on the floor. On O, he’s underrated as a passer: he has a double digit assist rate for the season and has seven games of at least three. He’s been limited of late by foul trouble; he has 19 in Duke’s last five games. 
G: Frank Jackson — 6'3'’ fr #15
Jackson is explosive and has done a lot right, but he has a tendency to pound the ball occasionally and it feels like the ball skips around more without him on the floor. 
F: Harry Giles — 6'10'’ fr #1
Giles is not the player you’ll see down the road. Still in the midst of recovering from his ACL tear, he’s played 20 minutes just once and is currently the most hyped reserve energy guy in the country. But what an energy guy! In his small sample size, he’s been scary on both backboards, blocked some shots, and has been a complete black hole on offense. 
F: Marques Bolden — 6'11'’ fr #20
Bolden played 41 combined minutes against Miami and NC State, but has played just 13 in the five since then, scoring just two points. K is very much into a seven man rotation right now.

Verdict:
I can’t pick Virginia. Not with us struggling with the basics of our defense and Duke on a roll. Not with Duke already having an extra day of rest before we tagged an extra half of a half onto the Blacksburg fiasco and had to play London and Wilkins more than 40 minutes each. Our depth is an advantage that could alleviate some of that stress, but it’s hard to count on the last few of the 10 for sound, mistake-free minutes right now against a team this good.

I’m just not feeling it. Though now that I’ve said this (and given how the ACC has gone against expectation this year), we’ll probably turn in our best game of the season and win by 15. Fingers crossed. Wear orange.

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