9:00 PM EST, ESPN2 – Line: , Over/Under:
With the Regular Season close to reaching it’s conclusion, ACC powerhouses meet tonight in Charlottesville, as the Fourteenth-Ranked Virginia Cavaliers look to remedy their recent uneven stretch against the surging Twelfth-Ranked Duke Blue Devils in a matchup ripe with league implications. After a disappointing streak in which they dropped four out of seven games, Duke (20-5, 8-4 in ACC) has now strung together five consecutive victories, putting them one game out of First Place in the convoluted conference. So what’s changed for the Blue Devils, you ask? Simply put, they welcomed back legendary Head Coach Mike Krzyzewski, who missed nine games (including the entirety of that miserable midseason rut) recuperating from a long-delayed back surgery. Coach K returned two weeks ago to lead his charges over struggling Pittsburgh (72-64), just in time for his annual hosting of bitter rival North Carolina, whom they outlasted in a narrow 86-78 victory. Consistency and focus is something that Krzyzewski has constantly lamented to his heralded young crop of players, who despite earning the dubious distinction of being Preseason No. One in the Polls still appear in need a bit of growth after barely avoiding collapse in Saturday’s 64-62 escape against a 13-11 Clemson team that has won just three league games thus far. Now before we torch the Devils, let’s call this for what it is, folks: this weekend’s win over the Tigers was the classic let-down after an emotional battle with a historic rival, and as we so often forget, these are kids after all, whose emotional pendulum swings as violently as anyone. And thus the scene was set at Cameron Indoor Stadium, less than forty-eight hours after their titanic clash with the Tar Heels, the hosts owned a 29-18 lead after a sluggish first twenty minutes of action, in which both teams struggled to find much of a rhythm. The visiting side would go on outscore them 44-35 in the Second Half, as the denizens of Durham blew a fourteen-point lead. Thankfully, Sophomore Guard Luke Kennard (20.0 PTS, 52.7% FG, 45.9% 3FG, 5.1 REB, 2.5 AST) put the Blue Devils on his back, scoring a game-high twenty-five points on 7-of-16 shooting from the field (43.8%) including 4-of-8 from beyond the arc (50.0%), while posting four rebounds, an assist, and a steal as none of his teammates could muster more than nine points in the win. On the day, Duke shot just 42.0% from the field, including a dreadful 10-of-24 from within the three-point arc (41.7%), while turning the ball over ten times compared to thirteen assists. The much-maligned Grayson Allen (15.9 PTS, 40.5% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 4.0 AST), who was huge Thursday Night against North Carolina (twenty-five points), looked visibly gassed from the get-go, mustering just eight points on 2-of-10 shooting (20.0%), missing all three of his attempts inside the arc. With that said, they grinded this one out thanks to their effort on the defensive end, where they absolutely suffocated Clemson, relegating them to a pitiful 37.9% shooting from the floor. Krzyzewski was probably pleased to see his charges gut out such an encounter, for that is in all likelihood the same kind of game they will find themselves in against Virginia, who will endeavor to slow the pace down to a crawl, forcing them to patiently maximize their possessions. Since the 2011-2012 campaign, Coach K and Co. have faced the Cavaliers six times (4-2), and have been held below seventy points in each of those meetings being decided by a slim five-point margin on average.
Meanwhile, after losing just three times in the first nineteen games of the season, Virginia (18-6, 8-4 in ACC) have now found themselves in something of a crisis, losing three out of their last five outings. After absolutely obliterating league-leading Louisville (71-55) last Monday Night, the Cavaliers let one get away from them Saturday as in-state rival Virginia Tech bested them 80-78 in Double-Overtime. Whereas their opponent tonight heroically gutted out a close contest despite running on fumes after less than two days of rest, Tony Bennett’s charges wasted numerous opportunities after being granted four days of rest against a middling league team. So where did it all go wrong for the Cavs, you ask? Well, how about we start with the 37-23 Halftime Lead that they blew? The Hokies outscored the visiting side 40-26 in the Second Half, primarily by making the most of their chances at the Charity Stripe, where they calmly netted all but six of their twenty-six Free-Throw Attempts (76.9%). Virginia, on the other hand, continuously missed opportunities to put the game away, missing ten of their twenty-four freebies (58.3%), while completely failing to take advantage of their opponent’s seventeen turnovers. The visitors shot just 42.4% from the field, including 20-of-43 from within the three-point arc (46.5%) and 8-of-23 from beyond it (34.8%). However, they still had plenty of chances to thwart Tech’s desperate attempts to extend the contest but failed. First, Ty Outlaw tipped in a missed layup from Seth Allen to send the game into the first Overtime, before Allen hit a short jumper with 3.2 seconds remaining to effectively end the affair in the second extra period. Senior Guard London Perrantes scored a game-high twenty-two points, but did so on a very inefficient 7-of-22 shooting (31.8%), including missing the potential game-winner at the conclusion of the first Overtime, which miraculously sat motionless on the rim. Then again, this game pretty much summed up Virginia in a nutshell; you know they’re going to make life hell for you on the defensive end, but will they be able to get things going enough offensively for it to matter? Bennett’s charges have yielded the fewest points in the country (55.1 PPG) and in the conference (61.8 PPG), and as we’ve said repeatedly before, that has a lot to do with the pace that they play at. Simply put, the Cavaliers look to play at crawl. Think molasses going uphill. Whereas so many teams are fixated on speeding things up so that they can manufacture more possessions for themselves, Bennett slows things down so much that his team rarely surpasses the eighty-point threshold. By doing so, this puts a major onus on efficiency and execution; despite ranking next-to-last in the conference in field goal attempts (53.4), Virginia shoots a league-best 48.5% from the field (1st in ACC), including 41.1% from downtown (1st in ACC), truly making the most of their opportunities, while limiting the opposition to 61.8 points (1st in ACC) on 43.7% shooting (4th in ACC), including 32.4% from three (2nd in ACC). Of course, this also makes the margin for error very slim for both teams, which should make for a rather interesting matchup with Duke, whom Virginia remains tied with for Second Place in the conference. The Cavaliers lost three out of the past four meetings with the Blue Devils, including last year’s trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the home side triumphed in a 63-62 classic.