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Virginia hosts Coach K's Duke

When a weary Akil Mitchell saw freshman forward Mike Tobey putting on his practice uniform to take the court for the first time in weeks, the junior forward could not contain his elation. He realized immediately that Tobey’s return meant that he would get a break every now and then.

“I got so excited I jumped all over him,” Mitchell said. “I was just jumping all around.”

Mitchell, who came to the University as an undersized power forward, has been thrust into heavy action at center for the undermanned Cavaliers. He is one of many players for Virginia that has thrived in an unfamiliar role, being forced out of necessity to figure things out quickly. Whether it be Mitchell’s fierce post play, junior guard Joe Harris’ lights out shooting or a deep and talented freshmen class providing coach Tony Bennett with effective minutes, players have exceeded expectations across the board.

Few would be surprised to learn that the Cavaliers’ (19-8, 9-5 ACC) opponent Thursday, Duke (24-3, 11-3), leads the ACC in point differential this season. But far fewer would have predicted that the second best point differential would belong to a Virginia squad that graduated three starters last season and used a school-record three freshmen in the starting five of their season-opening loss against George Mason — one of three losses on the year against Colonial Athletic Association opponents.

This latest challenge — ailments to big men Tobey and sophomore forward Darion Atkins — appears to be winding down at the most crucial time imaginable. Although Atkins did not play in the team’s win against Georgia Tech and has registered just 28 minutes in the past five games, his teammate appears ready to give the Cavaliers some much-needed front court depth. The 6-foot-11 Tobey returned from mononucleosis in the team’s 82-54 win against the Yellow Jackets Sunday, just in time to face national powerhouse and third-ranked Duke.

The Cavaliers will relish Tobey’s presence as they look to extend their John Paul Jones-record setting winning streak to 16 games, score their first win against a top-3 opponent in more than a decade and all but assure an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament. To earn the upset, they will need improved post defense to help slow the ACC’s top-scoring offense and reverse some ugly history against the Blue Devils, and Tobey’s return is a step in the right direction.

“In our system, I have to be able to fly around, I have to be able to do things, and when I can’t foul I get a little tentative defensively,” Mitchell said of needing to avoid foul trouble. “I feel like it’s hurt us a little bit in the last two games.”

Virginia has not beaten Duke since a 68-66 overtime victory Feb. 1, 2007 at John Paul Jones in the arena’s inaugural season. In the past 10 years, the Cavaliers have lost 17-of-18 matchups, including 15 by double-digits, and the Blue Devils remain the only ACC team that Bennett has not beaten as head coach at the University.

“There’s a lot of things that Duke tests you on,” Bennett said.

The Blue Devils are led by legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose 951 career wins are the fourth-most in men’s Division I history. They boast veteran talent in seniors forward Mason Plumlee and guard Seth Curry, who rank second and third in the ACC in scoring at 17.5 and 16.8 points per game, respectively. They are also closing in on their 11th number one seed in the NCAA Tournament in the past 16 seasons. Despite Duke’s long list of accolades, senior point guard Jontel Evans, who is still searching for win number one against the Blue Devils, remains unfazed.

“We have to negate all that, ‘they’re ranked, this and that,’” Evans said. “We just have to come in and play our game. They put their shorts on just like we do. If we come in here with the mindset that we can play with these guys and we’re connecting on all cylinders and doing the things we’re capable of doing, then we should come out with the win.”

Virginia lost last year’s matchup in Durham in heartbreaking fashion as then-senior forward Mike Scott and Evans each missed potential game-tying 3-pointers on the team’s final possession and the Blue Devils hung on for a 61-58 win to snap the Cavaliers’ 12-game winning streak and beat Virginia for the eighth straight time.

“We’ve come so close to beating those guys,” Evans said. “I just know it’s going to be a war zone. Guys are gonna battle and give everything they got, we just have to pay attention to detail and just finish strong.”

During last year’s loss at Cameron Indoor, Scott scored a game-high 23 points as part of a senior season that saw the 6-foot-8 inch forward earn First Team All-ACC honors. This year’s team has replaced Scott’s 18.0 points per game by committee, relying on Mitchell, Evans and Harris to provide the scoring punch.

After ranking at the bottom of the ACC in points per game for much of the season, Virginia has begun to climb out of the conference cellar. The Cavaliers have scored 73 or more points in five of their past six games after reaching that total just five times in their first 21 games. They have been spurred by unselfishness and chemistry between the team’s top three players and, in particular, by the dazzling play of Evans, who has appeared fully recovered from a right foot injury that slowed him earlier this season.

The senior guard has registered 15 assists and just one turnover in the team’s last two games, and his playmaking has catalyzed an improved halfcourt offense. His strong play has prevented teams from keying in on Harris and Mitchell, who rank fourth and 19th in the ACC in scoring, respectively.

“Different guys step up every week,” Mitchell said. “When Joe has a mismatch we get it to him, when I have a mismatch they get the ball to me, so it’s a three-headed monster. When Jontel’s playing great it just helps that.”

Virginia is 48-115 against Duke all-time. The 9 p.m. game will be televised by ESPN.

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