No. 3 men’s basketball vs. No. 2 Duke — a breakdown

The Cavaliers and Blue Devils meet Saturday night in a highly anticipated ACC rematch

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No. 3 Virginia is set for a rematch against No. 2 Duke on Saturday night at John Paul Jones Arena.

Christina Anton | Cavalier Daily

No. 3 Virginia (20-1, 8-1 ACC) is set for a rematch against No. 2 Duke (20-2, 8-1 ACC) under the lights of John Paul Jones Arena Saturday night.

ESPN’s College GameDay is making the trip to Charlottesville after going to Durham just three weeks earlier for the first installment of what has been college basketball’s most heated rivalry this year. The Blue Devils emerged victorious, 72-70, behind 57 points from the duo of freshman forwards Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett. The two freshmen proved to be the difference in the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. 

Besides having no answer for Williamson and Barrett’s penetration in the lane, Virginia struggled offensively. Virginia, a team that shoots 39.4 percent from three-point range this season, shot just 17.6 percent from three against Duke. It was the Cavaliers’ first and only loss of the season and ended their undefeated run.

Critically, Duke was without starting freshman point guard Tre Jones in that game. Jones leads the Blue Devils in assists with 5.6 assists per game and provides a crucial edge in perimeter defending. He has played in the last four games and will be active against Virginia Saturday. Jones’ presence will make things even more difficult for Virginia, who struggled even without the Blue Devils’ perimeter leader.

Virginia, however, has the home court advantage this time. The last time the Cavaliers lost at John Paul Jones arena was the last time College GameDay came to Charlottesville — almost a year ago when Virginia lost by one point against Virginia Tech. After that loss, however, the Cavaliers have won 13 consecutive home games. Playing at JPJ should give the Cavaliers a boost.

At the end of the day, this matchup comes down to two different playing styles. Duke — with its athletic duo of Williamson and Barrett and freshman forward Cam Reddish — likes to push the pace of play and get to the basket, and Virginia prefers to slow the game down and shoot more three-pointers. It remains to be seen which style will come out on top Saturday night.

Key Matchup: Virginia junior transfer guard Braxton Key vs. Duke freshman forward Zion Williamson

The Cavaliers, like many other teams across the country, struggled to solve the Williamson conundrum. Williamson is seen by many as the frontrunner to win the Wooden Award, given to the best player in college basketball. Virginia tried a number of players against Williamson — from redshirt sophomore guard De’Andre Hunter to redshirt senior center Jack Salt — in the first matchup against Duke, but the freshman still managed 27 points on 10-16 shooting. He would have had even more if he converted his free throws. Williamson made just seven free throws on 14 attempts. He was especially adept at penetrating Virginia’s packline defense, which Duke’s offense loosened with great ball movement.

Junior transfer guard Braxton Key has been a standout defensively for the Cavaliers all year and will be one of the primary players tasked with guarding Williamson. Along with Hunter, Key has the length and agility to force Williamson to shoot mid-range jumpers and three-pointers — both of which he struggles to make. He has, in the words of Tony Bennett, been a “Swiss-army knife” for Virginia, getting it done on defense, offense and in other intangible ways. 

Key leads the Cavaliers in rebounding with 5.9 rebounds per game and will play a crucial role in keeping Duke off the offensive glass. He will also be key on offense and is one of the better players on Virginia at getting to the basket. He can take advantage of mismatches as Duke switches on screens to take smaller players to the rim.

Junior transfer guard Braxton Key leads the Cavaliers in rebounding with 5.9 rebounds per game.

The X-Factor: Virginia redshirt sophomore forward Jay Huff

Redshirt sophomore forward Jay Huff has taken his game to the next level in recent weeks and has provided a real spark off the bench for Virginia. He continues to shoot the three-pointer well, currently shooting 50 percent from three, in addition to coming up with thunderous dunks and alley-oops. 

Huff’s potential to stretch Duke’s defense and provide interior defending will make him crucial come Saturday. His field goal percentage is a whopping 65.4 percent, and he has the highest player efficiency rating on Virginia. The measure places him in the top 20 in all of college basketball with players like Williamson and Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ.

Against Duke, Huff can punish the Blue Devils if they choose to switch on screens by rolling to the basket or isolating himself in the post on a mismatch. In addition, his length can help stop the finishing of the likes of Williamson and Barrett at the rim. The key for Huff is to stay out of foul trouble — getting two fouls early limited him to just seven minutes of playing time in the first matchup between Duke and Virginia.

Redshirt sophomore forward Jay Huff will make an impact against Duke if he can stay out of foul trouble.

The Pathway to Victory: Good ball movement and patience on offense, limit Duke’s second chance points

While Virginia, on the surface, did not struggle too much on offense against Duke, there was much room for improvement. Although the Cavaliers shot over 50 percent from the field, their execution down the stretch was poor. On Saturday, unlike many games for this Virginia team, offense will be the key in getting the Cavaliers over the hump. In a close game, a few solid offensive possessions can lift Virginia to victory. While executing the packline better is certainly important, a smoother offense will help the Cavaliers keep pace with the Blue Devils’ flying freshmen.

Virginia panicked too much down the stretch against Duke, falling into one-on-one matchups that led to ill-advised shot selection or shots taken too early in the clock. It is key that they don’t let the Blue Devils’ length and switching take them out of their rhythm offensively. Virginia’s mover-blocker offense can tire out Duke — the Blue Devils are not a deep team — and it’s important that the Cavaliers have patience early in the clock to keep moving the ball for a better shot. If they do this — play patient, Tony Bennett-style basketball — the Cavaliers will come out on top.

On the defensive end, in addition to executing better and being willing to double on Williamson and Barrett, the Cavaliers need to rebound the ball better. Particularly in the first half, the Blue Devils took advantage of second-chance points to maintain their slim lead, out-rebounding Virginia nine to two on the offensive glass.

“It wasn’t about effort, we just weren’t sound. Sometimes, it was just not boxing out or they make an amazing or athletic play, but that’s what we can’t let be acceptable,” Bennett said in the postgame press conference. “That hurt us and those were points that if we did our job wouldn’t happen.”

If the Cavaliers can execute patiently on offense and limit Duke’s second chance points, they should be in good position to win.

Junior guard Ty Jerome leads the Cavaliers in assists with 5.0 assists per game.

The Bottom Line: Virginia is a complete basketball team

Duke has a few great players. Virginia is a great team. It is this quality that the Cavaliers must take advantage of on Saturday. They play team basketball and have players on the bench that contribute — like Key, Huff and freshman guard Kihei Clark. If Virginia plays the packline well and executes patiently on offense, they should wear down Duke and emerge victorious.

Either way, the basketball played will be worth watching. Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski broke down how great the first matchup was.

“That’s a big-time game,” Krzyzewski said. “They don’t get much better than that. The kids on both teams, every possession, was good. If you scored, you beat good defense. If you didn’t score, good defense beat you. Every possession was high-level.”

Tune in Saturday night to witness a big-time college basketball rivalry with NBA talent on both teams. Tipoff is at 6 p.m. from John Paul Jones Arena. The game will be televised on ESPN.

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