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Virginia vs. Duke — a breakdown

The No. 4 Cavaliers gear up for their biggest game of the season against the No. 1 Blue Devils

Junior guard Ty Jerome hit the biggest shot of the game when Virginia beat Duke last season at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Junior guard Ty Jerome hit the biggest shot of the game when Virginia beat Duke last season at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

After a decisive 81-59 win against No. 9 Virginia Tech (14-2, 3-1 ACC), the No. 4 Virginia men’s basketball team (16-0, 4-0 ACC) is set to play No. 1 Duke (15-1, 4-1 ACC) Saturday. All eyes will be on the most anticipated college basketball clash of the season between two ACC powerhouses. ESPN’s CollegeGameday is making the trip to Durham, N.C., where thousands of Blue Devil faithful will be camping out to get into Cameron Indoor Stadium. It is a matchup between two of college basketball’s greatest coaches — Tony Bennett and Mike Krzyzewski. Bennett’s lethally consistent packline defense and mover-blocker offense is pitted against the winningest coach in college basketball history, with perhaps the best freshman class in college basketball history. Freshman forwards R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson, both averaging over 20 points per game, are set to face the supremely talented Cavaliers’ big three junior guards Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome and redshirt sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter. Tip-off is set for 6 p.m. from Cameron Indoor.

Players to watch

Virginia sophomore forward De’Andre Hunter

De’Andre Hunter, the premier NBA prospect for Virginia, has the ability to be a gamechanger for the Cavaliers on both sides of the ball. While national media have paid significant attention to the jaw-dropping dunks of Zion Williamson and the length of R.J. Barrett, Virginia’s athleticism also merits attention. The Cavaliers may be known for their calm, cerebral style of play, but that doesn’t mean they don’t also possess great athleticism. Hunter epitomizes the largely underrated athleticism of the No. 4 team in the nation, with his 7-foot-2 wingspan and ability to guard multiple positions. Whether matched up with Barrett or Williamson, Hunter will have a lot on his hands defensively Saturday. But he is ready to meet the challenge. His length, wide base and mastery of the packline will make it difficult for Duke to penetrate, which they have done so effortlessly. The key is for Hunter to stay out of foul trouble. Besides players like junior transfer guard Braxton Key, who currently has the best defensive rating in all of college basketball, the Cavaliers don’t have a lot of wing depth to match up with Duke’s best. In addition to maintaining his defensive prowess, Hunter must stay aggressive on offense. Particularly in moments when Virginia needs to reverse momentum, he is the man to come up with 1-on-1 offense. He did it last year at Cameron Indoor, and must step up again this year.

Virginia junior forward Mamadi Diakite 

This season, much like last year, Virginia’s offense has largely come from their guards with Kyle Guy, De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome all putting up an average of double figures. All three of them have also proved they can handle the intensity of playing in Cameron Indoor. In last year’s matchup Guy had 17 points, Jerome had 13 points — including that clutch 3 pointer with 39 seconds left that put Virginia ahead by 5 — and Hunter had 12 points. While the Cavaliers will need all of them to step up to the plate again, against the No. 1 team in the country Virginia will need another factor to diversify their offense. Junior forward Mamadi Diakite can be that option. He’s athletic and dynamic, and he has proved he’s capable of generating scoring with his 18 points against Boston College on 9-for-12 shooting. Perhaps more importantly than giving Virginia some points, Diakite will also have to stay disciplined on defense. Staying out of foul trouble and keeping Duke from picking up easy buckets inside the paint are going to be crucial for Virginia to get a win against the Blue Devils. 

Keys to the game

Keep calm, have faith in the packline

Virginia’s defense is feared nationwide. The last eight years — including this year so far — the Cavaliers have finished in the top five nationally in points allowed per game. Their renowned packline defense has stopped the best scorers in the country in the past. Saturday’s game, however, presents a unique challenge, with a Blue Devils team coming in averaging 90.2 points per game. The size of Duke’s three freshman wing/forwards (Barrett, Williamson and Cam Reddish) is difficult to stop, and the Blue Devils get a lot of points by taking undersized opponents to the rim. This, however, is the strength of the packline — stopping attackers from getting to the basket by collapsing towards the middle. The primary weakness of Duke’s offense is three-point shooting — they are currently in the bottom third in the nation in three-point field goal percentage — and it typically takes good three-point shooting to beat the packline. Maryland, the only team to score over 70 points against Virginia, shot 41.2 percent from three-point range against the Cavaliers. Therefore, if Virginia’s wings can stay out of foul trouble and play the fundamental, patient packline, the Cavaliers should emerge victorious.

Control turnovers 

While the Blue Devils have a very talented group of freshmen, at times their inexperience shows, and the play can get sloppy. This is particularly true in regards to turnovers. They’ve had turnovers in double figures in a majority of their games, including 14 against Florida State, 17 against Wake Forest and 19 against Texas Tech. Controlling the turnover game can be a crucial way for Virginia to win this game. Considering the Blue Devils have struggled against lesser defenses than Virginia, the opportunity to force and score off turnovers will definitely be there for Virginia to capitalize on. The Cavaliers will also have to minimize their own turnovers, They’re currently averaging around nine turnovers a game, and not going above that number by playing clean, precise basketball is going to be key for them.