College basketball never fails to impress, and this season is no different. The 2017-18 basketball season has been certifiably bonkers, with the top 25 teams getting upset week in and week out and three different teams occupying the top spot over the course of 12 weeks.
This Saturday, we will be treated to one of the best matchups of the season as the No. 2 Virginia Cavaliers head to Cameron Indoor to take on the No. 4 Duke Blue Devils. It’s not just a clash between two highly ranked teams, it’s a clash between two teams that are diametrically opposed stylistically. Virginia is known for their Pack Line defense and Tony Bennett’s stifling pressure. Duke brings style and flash to a high-flying offense led by some of the brightest young players in the game.
Currently, Virginia is 19-1 and leads the ACC at 8-0. Duke (18-2, 6-2 ACC), who occupied the top spot in the polls from the preseason to week five, dropped two road games in conference to a much-improved Boston College and NC State. Both teams enter Saturday’s game on impressive win streaks as Virginia has won 11 straight and Duke has rattled off five victories since the loss in Raleigh.
The battles of top offense vs. top defense, tempo, and superstars vs. super system make this one of the most compelling matchups of the season.
Virginia’s No. 1 defense vs. Duke’s No. 2 offense
Duke’s average possession length is the shortest of any power conference team. The Blue Devils like to push the tempo and get out in transition. They score an NCAA-leading 91.7 points per game and shoot 51 percent from the field. Their offensive efficiency is second best on the Ken Pomeroy rankings, behind just Villanova.
All five Blue Devil starters average double-digit scoring, led by Marvin Bagley III, who is averaging a double-double at 21.6 points and 11.5 rebounds per game. He’s a monster on the glass, helping Duke rebound almost 41 percent of its own misses, and he shoots 60.7 percent from the field.
The scary part?
Bagley doesn’t even lead his team in shooting percentage. No, that’s fellow big man Wendell Carter, who shoots 61.5 percent and is averaging 14.4 points and 9.2 rebounds per game. Oh and don’t forget about Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr. who are making threes at a 38.6 percent and 43.1 percent clip, respectively.
On the flip side, you have the Hoos. Virginia only allows opponents score an NCAA-low 51.6 points per game. They’ve held 10 teams under 50 points this season, and two teams under 40 points — including No. 18 Clemson in a 61-36 win on Tuesday. Virginia’s defensive efficiency of 81.6 is uncharted territory in the KenPom era. In addition to their normally stifling harassment in the pack line, the Cavaliers have added improved steals and blocks to become even more dangerous. Virginia has an ACC-best turnover margin, causing 14.5 turnovers and only turning it over 9.5 times per game (best among the Power 5 teams).
While no individual defender is as good as Malcolm Brogdon was, Virginia’s team defense has somehow improved. Isaiah Wilkins does a little bit of everything, Devon Hall is one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, and Jack Salt is tough around the rim. Throw in impressive development from second years Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, and the growth of redshirt freshman DeAndre Hunter, and you’ve got the perfect ingredients to frustrate opponents.
Virginia ... literally dead last in tempo
There are 351 teams in NCAA Division I basketball. Virginia is No. 351 when it comes to tempo, averaging 59.8 possessions per game. But despite what you may hear, Virginia doesn’t hold the ball and purposefully initiate offense with 20 seconds on the shot clock. The Cavaliers work for the best shot possible, often times passing up a ‘good’ shot for a ‘great’ one. That said, their possession length is also dead last in NCAA basketball at 20.5 seconds. Some of that is a result of the fact that their defense forces opponents to take significantly longer than normal to find a shot. Some of that is shot selection and their mover-blocker offense.
Tempo will be the story of this game. Duke wants to run. Virginia doesn’t want to let them. Generally, the Hoos succeed in slowing opponents down. The last six games between Duke and Virginia have been played at Virginia’s pace, averaging 61 possessions per game.
Virginia/Duke Last Six Meetings
In each of those games, Duke’s offensive efficiency has been in the top six with regards to the KenPom rankings. The issue in the past has been whether Virginia can score enough to keep pace with Duke (or can it keep Tyus Jones or Jayson Tatum from going off). If history is any indication, Duke will have to beat Virginia at the Cavaliers’ preferred speed, something the Blue Devils have succeeded in over the last five years.
Duke’s star power vs. Virginia’s “starless” machine
There is no arguing that Duke boasts more raw talent than Virginia, as it starts five guys who ranked in the top 25 of ESPN’s Top 100 recruiting rankings for their respective classes. Senior Grayson Allen (No. 21) is the lone non-freshman in the starting five and plays alongside Gary Trent Jr. (No. 8), Trevon Duval (No. 6), Wendell Carter (No. 5), and the unreal Marvin Bagley III (No. 1). No team — on paper -- comes close to the talent of the Blue Devils.
Kyle Guy was the highest-rated recruit, coming in at No. 27 in his class. Ty Jerome came in at No. 43. Isaiah Wilkins, Devon Hall, and Jack Salt were not ranked in their respective Top 100 classes, per ESPN. Redshirt freshman DeAndre Hunter, who has provided crucial bench minutes for the Hoos, was No. 72, and has been a pivotal cog in the machine for Tony Bennett, especially in ACC play where he’s averaging 13.5 points per game. Some of those guys may have NBA futures ahead of them, but all of them have flown pretty under the radar and fit Bennett’s system perfectly.
One of the reasons Virginia was unranked to start the season was this perceived lack of “talent”, especially as its starting point guard London Perrantes graduated and two wings — Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson -- transferred out of the program. Instead, the Cavaliers have worked seamlessly as a team, relying on the leadership of Hall, Wilkins, and Salt and getting impressive second year jumps from Jerome and Guy. Hall (47 percent), Guy (43 percent), and Jerome (42 percent) are all shooting a solid clip from beyond the arc.
This team is by no means devoid of talent, but Bennett has shown that his system showcases and highlights players like Mike Scott, Joe Harris, Justin Anderson, and Malcolm Brogdon.
“Sometimes I don’t think our guys get enough credit for their individual talent, but they just kind of mesh it together,” Tony Bennett told Seth Greenberg and Dan Dakich on Thursday’s Courtside podcast.
But who do you attempt to “shut down” on Duke? If you double Bagley, what happens with Carter? Can Wilkins match up against Bagley, despite giving up about four inches and 10 pounds? If Virginia harasses Duke’s big men, where does that leave Duval, Allen, and Trent, all of whom can knock down shots from outside? How will Virginia handle Duke’s superior work on the glass?
All of these questions (and more) will be answered on the hardwood on Saturday afternoon. Just sit back, relax, and enjoy one of the most compelling matchups of the season.