One thing is certain Thursday night.
Either Virginia’s 15-game home win streak will end or it will stop third-ranked Duke’s eight-game run of victories in an ACC rivalry that has been lopsided in recent seasons.
Duke (24-3, 11-3) is in second place and Virginia (19-8, 9-5) is tied with North Carolina for third. This contest may be far more important to the Cavaliers since their NCAA tournament hopes are uncertain thanks to losses to Old Dominion and Delaware.
“You don’t sit there and play those games, and say what does this mean long range?” coach Tony Bennett said. “You’re just thankful we’re playing better basketball now.”
The Cavaliers are 16-1 at home, with the loss coming 59-53 to Delaware on Nov. 13. Only one home win has come against a ranked team, and notching the first victory over the Blue Devils in six seasons would help offset Virginia’s poor play away from Charlottesville.
Duke has won 17 of the last 18 matchups, although its run of seven straight double-digit victories in this series ended with last season’s 61-58 home win.
The Blue Devils would like to catch No. 5 Miami for first place and want to avoid a slip-up that could cost them a No. 1 seed in the NCAAs. Duke was dominant last week in winning by an average of 26.5 points over Virginia Tech and Boston College.
Freshman Rasheed Sulaimon was sensational in averaging 22.0 points on 65.4 percent shooting, recording a season-high 27 points in Saturday’s 89-68 rout of Boston College.
“I think he’s had a great year and he happens to be a freshman,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “He’s had a great year for any player, but as a freshman, it’s been terrific.”
The Blue Devils are 9-3 without injured forward Ryan Kelly, whose return date is unclear.
Virginia will have to also worry about slowing down leading scorer Mason Plumlee, who has 16 double-doubles.
There could be a good reason why the Cavs have enjoyed success in neutralizing Seth Curry, the Blue Devils’ top perimeter threat at 16.8 points per game.
In three career games against Virginia with Duke, Curry is averaging 8.3 points - his lowest versus an ACC team as a member of the Blue Devils. Curry played his freshman season at Liberty under Ritchie McKay, a Cavs assistant the last four years.
While Duke averages 78.9 points, Virginia averages 65.0 for one of the ACC’s worst marks. The Cavaliers, however, are averaging 74.0 points on 50.9 percent shooting during a 4-2 stretch that has caught Krzyzewski’s attention.
“I don’t think they’re a slow-down team, I think they’re a smart basketball team that will take opportunistic shots,” the coach said. “When they get a good shot, they’ll take it. They’re more so an efficient team, they’re a very efficient offensive team.”
Virginia top scorer Joe Harris is averaging 20.9 points over his last nine contests, although that figure is 12.3 in three career games against Duke.
“Harris is really one of the better players in the country,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a warrior. He reminds me of (former Duke great Kyle) Singler as far as their toughness.”