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No. 2 men’s basketball clashes with No. 4 Duke in marquee ACC matchup

Cavaliers bring suffocating defense to combat Duke’s high-powered offense on the road

<p>Virginia Coach Tony Bennett has his toughest task yet this season against No. 4 Duke.</p>

Virginia Coach Tony Bennett has his toughest task yet this season against No. 4 Duke.

There may not be two men’s basketball teams in the ACC more different from each other than Virginia and Duke. Virginia Coach Tony Bennett’s squad of defensive-minded, heavily-developed players do not share much in common with the offensive juggernaut Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski builds with predominantly highly-touted freshmen. 

However, one important commonality has linked these two teams in recent years — when they meet, the result is usually a thriller. The bitter rivalry continues Saturday when the No. 2 Cavaliers travel to the No. 4 Blue Devils in what promises to be the biggest ACC matchup of the season. 

Virginia (19-1, 8-0 ACC) rolls into Cameron Indoor Stadium atop the ACC with defense once again catalyzing the team’s success. The Cavaliers lead the NCAA in scoring defense by a wide margin, allowing 51.6 points per game — five less than second ranked Cincinnati. Bennett continues to be able to control the game with meticulously careful play from his team, ranking seventh in the country with a turnover margin of 5.1.

The Cavaliers last took the court at home against Clemson, overcoming an early deficit to dominate the Tigers 61-36. Though Virginia’s calling card has always been suffocating defense, Bennett seemed especially impressed with his team’s effort.

"I thought in the second half, that was some of the best defense we've played,” Bennett said. “I thought they were so active with their hands … everything was contested. It was physical.”

Clemson only managed 13 second-half points against the pack-line defense, as the sharp Cavaliers forced 19 turnovers and blocked seven shots in the game. The effort further lowered Virginia’s defensive rating on Ken Pomeroy’s rankings to 81.6, the lowest ever recorded in the ranking’s history. 

Nearly atop Pomeroy’s offensive rating is Duke, falling just behind Villanova for the top spot. Krzyzewski has arguably the most talented roster in the country to work with, and most of his young stars have adapted perfectly to his offensive system. All of the Blue Devil starters average over 11 points per game, making matchups tough across the board for the Cavaliers.

Virginia will have its hands particularly full with freshman forward Marvin Bagley III, who boasts a prolific stat line of 21.6 points per game and 11.5 rebounds per game. At six-foot-11, Bagley is a force on the low post who can fight through tight pressure with his great athleticism. He has single-handedly gotten Duke back into several contests when the rest of the offense struggled, so Virginia’s bigs will have to neutralize him from start to finish.

The rest of Duke’s lineup is loaded with lethal scorers. Senior guard Grayson Allen ranks second on the team in scoring with 15.2 points per game, and while he has been inconsistent in ACC play, he has the propensity to get hot and score in bunches. Starting Blue Devil freshmen Wendell Carter Jr. and Gary Trent Jr. shoot 43 and 48 percent from beyond the arc, respectively. Carter is especially dangerous as a shooter — he leads the team with a 61.5 percent field goal percentage — and on the glass, as he picks up 9.2 rebounds per game.

The Duke offense is without a doubt one of the best units Virginia defense will see this season, and shutting them down becomes even more daunting on the road at the raucous Cameron Indoor. Rather than feel nervous, the Cavaliers seem genuinely excited to carry their success into a road game against a blue-blood program.

"This game Saturday was the one everybody circled at the beginning of the year. It is going to be a really good test for us and we are really looking forward to it,” sophomore guard Kyle Guy said. “Our defense was great this second half, so that is good momentum and a boost going into that game."

After playing against some tough defenses in recent games against Georgia Tech and Clemson, the Virginia offense has a chance to take advantage of Duke’s struggling defense. The Blue Devils allow 72.7 points per game — ranking 192nd in the nation — losing both their games because of ineptness on the defensive side of the ball. While they have started to improve in scoring defense, their competition has softened, with four of their last five games being against Pittsburgh and Wake Forest — the bottom two teams in the ACC. If the Cavaliers can get out to a hot start in Durham, they will put their stout defense in a great position to control the game and escape with a win. 

The Cavaliers’ other advantage against the Blue Devils rests in the team’s experience, compared to freshman-laden squad of Krzyzewski.

“There's individual talent, but I love the saying that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts,” Bennett said. “We have some really great parts, but there is something going on with that synergy … We have different guys with different balance.”

Stout defense and explosive offense clash in the heavyweight battle between Virginia and Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Tipoff is scheduled for Saturday at 2 p.m.