Why Duke-Virginia could be college basketball's game of the year

Yahoo Sports
Virginia’s <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaab/players/136059/" data-ylk="slk:Kyle Guy">Kyle Guy</a> (L) and Duke’s <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/ncaab/players/147096/" data-ylk="slk:Zion Williamson">Zion Williamson</a> will meet at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday. (AP)
Virginia’s Kyle Guy (L) and Duke’s Zion Williamson will meet at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday. (AP)

January can be sensory overload in college basketball. So many games, seven days a week, that it becomes clutter. Like social media posts endlessly scrolling by, how are we supposed to know when one really matters?

Saturday, we have a game that matters.

If you watch one game this month, make it Virginia at Duke, 6 p.m. ET from Cameron Indoor Stadium. It is the exceedingly rare matchup of No. 1 vs. No. 1 — the Cavaliers are ranked first in the USA Today coaches poll, the Blue Devils are on top in the Associated Press poll. It is the matchup of No. 1 (Virginia) vs. No. 2 (Duke) in the Pomeroy Ratings. And the Sagarin Ratings (Duke on top there, Virginia second).

Beyond that, it is a game of compelling opposites. Few programs have less in common than Duke and Virginia, beyond conference affiliation and consistent excellence.

Start with overall philosophy. Duke has become the ultimate drive-thru program, elite talent stopping by on its way to the NBA, only the best for only the briefest amounts of time. Virginia is the old sit-down restaurant, where everything takes a while but the meal is worth the wait.

Duke has five five-star recruits, all of whom were in the Rivals.com Top 15 of their class coming out of high school — three of them in the top five. Virginia has zero five-star recruits, and zero who were in the Rivals Top 40. Junior guard Kyle Guy was the highest ranked at No. 43 in the class of 2016.

What the Cavaliers lack in recruiting star power, they compensate for in experience. Average age of the top eight players at Duke: 19.3. Just one of those eight is 21 years old. Average age of the top eight players at Virginia: 20.8. Just one of those eight is younger than 21.

The Blue Devils’ top four scorers all are 18 or 19 years old. All of the Cavaliers’ top six scorers are 21.

“Give an edge to the Virginia kids in terms of poise and experience in their system,” said Clemson coach Brad Brownell, whose team is the only one to play both Virginia and Duke thus far this season. “They’ve played in games like this.”

Duke’s Zion Williamson moves the ball against Syracuse during their game on Monday. Syracuse won 95-91 in overtime. (Getty)
Duke’s Zion Williamson moves the ball against Syracuse during their game on Monday. Syracuse won 95-91 in overtime. (Getty)

It’s not the only stark difference between the two. Style of play is also completely opposite.

Duke is playing at the seventh-fastest tempo in the country, according to Pomeroy, with an average of 75.6 possessions per game. The Devils’ offensive possessions last just 14.7 seconds, 11th briefest in America. When they get the ball, they go.

Virginia is the dead-slowest team in college basketball, 353rd out of 353, with an average of just 60.7 possessions per game. Its rout of Virginia Tech on Tuesday had just 56 total possessions. The Cavs’ offensive possessions are lasting 20.4 seconds, with only Siena taking longer at that end of the court.

It may be worth noting that Virginia is half a second faster on offense than it was last year, and nearly a full second faster than in 2017 — a minute quickening that could be worth monitoring as the season goes on. But still, patience is the primary virtue of Tony Bennett’s system.

“They’ve tweaked their offense a little bit,” Brownell said. “There’s a little less side motion. In terms of lineups, Virginia has more flexibility and versatility than they have recently. This might be Tony’s best team.”

But is this team good enough — calm enough, flexible enough — to win come NCAA tournament time? That is the final difference between programs — Mike Krzyzewski has been the greatest March Madness coach not named Wooden, winning five national titles and going to 12 Final Fours. Bennett, of course, has been to zero Final Fours, and now owns the single most humiliating loss in NCAA tourney history — the first-round flop last year as the overall No. 1 seed against No. 16 seed UMBC.

The March questions can hold for now, though. In terms of this game, this week, the edge should go to Virginia.

The single biggest factor is the shoulder of Duke point guard Tre Jones. When he went out early Monday against Syracuse with what was diagnosed as a separated AC joint, the Blue Devils went from dominant to vulnerable and ultimately lost in overtime.

One of the inherent weaknesses in the Krzyzewski one-and-done assembly line is the continual lack of depth. And there is no area where that issue is more acute than point guard, where Jones is second only to R.J. Barrett in minutes played. Even on a team where players at four positions have the freedom to lead the break after a defensive rebound, Duke literally has no adequate replacement at lead guard for Jones.

“They’re completely different without Jones,” Brownell said. “I don’t know if he’ll be playing or not. The good thing for Mike is that this happened on Monday, so they’ve got the rest of the week to figure out what they’re going to do. Their pieces all fit well together, but it helps when you have a point guard out there thinking pass first.”

Even without Jones, Duke possesses more raw talent. Zion Williamson and Barrett are widely considered the top two draft prospects in America, in either order. They’ve been spectacular all season: Williamson a 6-foot-7, 285-pound bull with wings; Barrett a smooth, 6-7 wing who can score in limitless ways.

But Virginia has some bodies, too. Perhaps less athletic bodies, but bigger and stronger at a lot of positions.

“Duke can overwhelm you physically,” Brownell said. “They’re all extremely impressive. But it’s not going to be easy to overwhelm Virginia. Their front line, with [Jack] Salt, [Mamadi] Diakite and [De’Andre] Hunter, they’re every bit as physically impressive. Every bit.”

For many reasons, Duke-Virginia is the most intriguing matchup of the 2018-19 season to date. In a sport that struggles to command attention before the postseason, this is the rare January game that qualifies as must-watch.

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