Duke Primer

Virginia’s defense will face a tough challenge against Duke’s shooters.

On Saturday evening, the UVa men’s basketball team exorcised last year’s demons by hanging on to beat Miami, 52-51, and win its ACC home opener and move to 14-1 on the season. On Thursday night, the Hoos will look to exorcise demons of a different kind: Blue Devils, to be specific. It’s almost 17 years to the day since Virginia and current assistant coach Jason Williford entered Cameron Indoor Stadium and left with a win (91-88 in double OT) on January 14, 1995. There are reasons to believe, though, that the losing streak in Durham might not be long for this world.

Here’s a primer on Duke.

1. The first of these reasons is that Duke has looked vulnerable this year, despite boasting a No. 2 RPI, and No. 9 and No. 10 rankings in TAPE and KenPom, respectively. To be sure, Duke boasts some quality wins, such as neutral site victories over Michigan State, Michigan, and Kansas. That said, the Devils were pasted at Ohio State, lost by 5 to a decent Temple team, and didn’t look too impressive in an 81-74 win at Georgia Tech in their last game. They’ve even looked vulnerable at home, such as in a 1-point win over a Belmont team that otherwise hasn’t lived up to preseason expectations.

2. The second reason to be hopeful is personnel losses from the Duke team that beat Virginia by 16 in Durham (76-60) and 15 at JPJ (56-41) last year. Point guard Nolan Smith , who paced the Blue Devils with 29 and 22 points last year, is currently suiting up for the NBA’s Trail Blazers. Meanwhile, sharpshooter Kyle Singler, who tallied 13 points in Durham, is now in Spain. With the departures of these 2 players, Duke has lost exactly 50% of its scoring against the Hoos last year (66/132 points).

3. More importantly, Smith was the motor that made last year’s Blue Devils run, and Duke has not yet found an adequate replacement for him. All-time NCAA wins leader Mike Krzyzewski is known for his patented 3-out, 2-in motion offense, which starts with 3 guards outside the 3-point line and 2 players in the post; the offense is deft at freeing 3-point shooters. Indeed, Coach K has recently borrowed a page from the Mike D’Antoni playbook and incorporated more on-ball screens into his offense to give his sharp shooters even more room to operate. That philosophy is having great success this year as the Blue Devils are No. 8 in the nation in 3-point shooting at 41.7% and No. 4 in adjusted offensive efficiency. That said, while Duke often is lights out from beyond the arc, its point guard problems have limited the team to a mere 1.035 assists per turnover, good for only No. 98 in the country. UVa meanwhile, is No. 3 in the country in opponent assist to turnover ratio, allowing less than half an assist (.498) per turnover forced.

Since the arrival of Tony Bennett in Charlottesville, I’ve thought that Duke’s offense was the toughest matchup for Bennett’s Pack-Line defense because of its ability to put several long-ball shooters on the court at the same time. Last year, the Pack-Line worked for a half in Durham (31-25 lead) and a good part of the second half before crumbling. The biggest question this year for the Hoos is whether their fortified defense can withstand the full 40 minutes of Blue Devil hell.

4. On the defensive side of the ball, I feel confident in saying that this is the worst defensive team (so far) that Duke has put on the floor since the 1994-1995, when Pete Gaudet was coaching the Blue Devils and they were giving up back-breaking shot after back-breaking shot. Duke is known for its pressure man-to-man defense that both puts pressure on the ball and denies passing lanes. This year, though, that pressure has deflated a bit.

Mike Scott

Duke currently ranks No. 50 in adjusted defense on KenPom, with a score of 92.6 (the lower the number, the better). Those are the worst absolute and relative numbers since the start of the KenPom rankings in 2002-2003. The Blue Devils’ second worst season was in 2008-2009 when they finished No. 20 in adjusted defense with a score of 90.8. Furthermore, according to Team Rankings, Duke is No. 141 in defensive efficiency, with a score of .969 (again, the lower, the better). The Team Rankings site goes back to 1997-1998, and these numbers are the worst for the Blue Devils over that stretch of years. Their second worst performance was in 2005-2006, when they finished with a score of .934 and a ranking of No. 50.

The problems for Duke seem to be that their guards are a step slow and a few inches too short, and their big men are a bit too soft and unathletic to play the way the Devils prefer to play. Specifically, this Duke team (so far) is the worst at forcing turnovers since the start of the Team Rankings site in 1997-1998, with a rank of No. 163.

5. Starting lineup:

Usually by the start of the ACC slate, Coach K has a starting 5 and short bench in place, but neither is the case this year. 10 players saw action in the 78-73 loss to Temple at the Wells Fargo Center, and 2 players who started that game came off the bench in Saturday’s 81-74 win over Georgia Tech at Philips Arena. Given this, it’s unclear who will start against the Hoos, but the following is my best guess.

PG: Quinn Cook (No. 2) is a 6’0″, 175-pound freshman from Oak Hill/DeMatha who gave UVa a look before settling on Durham. He seems to be 100% physically after suffering a knee injury at Oak Hill that lingered in his early days at Duke and limited his preseason prep. So far, he’s shown a solid ability to slash and dish and occasionally finish. On the season, he’s averaging 5.5 points and 2.4 assists (against only .5 turnovers) in 12.6 minutes per game. He’s not much of a deep threat (29.6% from 3), but he’s terrific from the line (82.8%). He really has seemed to come into his own in the last five games, averaging just more than 10 points and 5 assists per game; that resulted in his first start of the season against the Yellow Jackets. He’s also seemingly a defensive upgrade from Tyler Thornton.

SG: At the “2” spot is redshirt junior Seth Curry (No. 30), who Cavs’ assistant Ritchie McKay coached for a year at Liberty. Curry is 6’2″ and 180 pounds, and like his older brother (Stephen) and father (Del) can really fill it up from deep (43.1%) and the line (89.6%). He leads the Blue Devils in assists per game (2.9), steals per game (1.7) and is second in points per game (12.9). Last year, UVa limited Curry to a total of 7 points in the teams’ two games, with Curry only going 3/14 from the field and 1/7 from long range in the two games combined. Maybe McKay has the formula for slowing him down.

SF: At the “3” is freshman sensation Austin Rivers (No. 0), regarded by some as the top high school player in the country last year. Rivers, the son of Doc Rivers, leads Duke in scoring at 14.7 points per game and has taken the lion’s share of the shots for the Blue Devils thus far (11.1 attempts per game), and … that’s part of the problem. Rivers often seems to be doing too much with the ball and not involving his teammates enough, points backed up by his 2.1 to 2.3 assist to turnover ratio. Rivers has been great from 3-point range this year (an even 40%) but not so great from the charity stripe (68.4%). Rivers doesn’t seem to put much effort into rebounding (2.7 RPG) or off-the-ball defense, and if he doesn’t fight through screens, Joe Harris could have a big game.

PF: Ryan Kelly (No. 34), a 6’11”, 230-pound junior, has started 11 games this year and responded to being benched on Saturday by coming off the bench to score 21 points against the Yellow Jackets. Kelly isn’t that fleet of foot, can’t really create his own shot, and isn’t a classic back-to-the basket “4.” That said, like Mike Scott, he’s aces in the mid-range game and also can knock down the 3-ball (47.6%), which could give Scott problems defensively. Like Scott, he’s also money from the line (82.7%). Last year, Kelly was solid against UVa, going for 11/5 and 8/3 against and he’s a much better and more complete player this year.

C: Mason Plumlee (No. 5), a 6’10”, 235-pound junior, mans the “5” spot for the Blue Devils and is averaging almost a double-double on the year (11.7 PPG/9.8 RPG). He’s also not a classic back-to-the-basket post player but has developed a pretty wicked hook shot this year and is shooting a sweet 61.9% from the field. His 2.1 assists per game demonstrate that he’s a good passer out of the post, but he also has a tendency to over-dribble, resulting in 2.1 turnovers per game. He’s a Shaq-like 42.2% from the free throw line and not the most physical defender. Last year, Mason went for 9/9 and 5/16 against the Hoos, and Assane Sene is going to have to work hard to shut him down.

Key bench players:

PG: Tyler Thornton (No. 3), a 6’1″, 195-pound sophomore, had started at the point for the Blue Devils in the six games before the Georgia Tech game. Thornton is a crack shot (51.5% from the floor, 57.1% 3-point shooter), but that’s also the rub – he’s a shooter, not a distributor. He’s only averaging 1.6 assists per game and can’t be counted on from the free throw line (65%) although he is a solid defender. I’m not sure how much Thornton will see the floor against Virginia with the emergence of Cook. His stat line against the Hoos last year was 0 points, 1 assist, and 2 turnovers in the two games.

SG: Andre Dawkins (No. 20), a 6’4″, 200-pound junior, started eight games for Duke earlier in the season and is averaging 24.1 minutes per game. In that time, he’s averaging 8.5 points per game on OK shooting (41.6% from the field, 38% from 3, 70.8% from the line), and … that’s about it. Dawkins is a poor defender and doesn’t really fill out his stat sheet: only 1.9 rebounds, .7 assists, and .7 steals per game. I know that Malcolm Brogdon is two years Dawkins’ junior and a much less-heralded recruit, but I like this matchup should the two be in the game at the same time. Last year, Dawkins had UVa’s number in Durham (14 points), but the team held him to a mere 3 points in Charlottesville.

PF: Miles Plumlee (No. 21), a 6’10”, 245-pound senior, and Mason’s older brother (the youngest Plumlee, Marshall, was a Tony Bennett target who is redshirting this year). He’s started four games for Duke on the year and is a very efficient player for Coach K. In 17.8 minutes per game, he’s averaging 7.3 PPG on 68.3% shooting from the field, with 6.3 rebounds per game. Like his brother, he’s not a classic back-to-the-basket post, and he’s a better free throw shooter than his brother (62.2% from the line) but a worse passer (.5 assist per game). Overall, Miles is the less talented of the older Plumlee brothers, and UVa contained him very well last year as he could only manage two points in the two meetings combined.

6. 504-C Brandon, another Sabre poster, predicts a 66.6-59.4 Duke win, with the Hoos having a 27% chance of winning (click here). The Team Rankings simulation (click here) has it as a 64.6-58.5 Duke win.

So, can the Hoos pull off the upset? I don’t quite think so. While Duke’s defense has shown vulnerability, it has primarily been vulnerable to teams with quick guards who could get past the Blue Devils’ backcourt defenders and dish to big bodies that overpowered their front court. That’s not UVa. The Hoos play more like the Michigan team that hung with the Blue Devils in Maui before losing by 7 (and lost to Virginia by 12). In other words, the UVa is not the best equipped team to exploit Duke’s defensive weaknesses although Mike Scott should be able to get his points, and Sammy Zeglinski and Joe Harris should get some open looks.

I feel like the Hoos are one scoring post away from being able to win, but I do think that they can keep it close. I will predict a 65-59 win for the Blue Devils. Keep in mind, though, that if the game is close late, Duke is not a great free throw shooting team this year. The Devils are only 69% from the line this year (although they were 29-36 against the Rambling Wreck), meaning that a close game late could lead to a close Virginia victory.

Author’s Note: Many of the statistics and analysis in this article were gathered through watching the two Duke-UVa games last season, watching a few Duke games this season, ESPN.com, 504-C Brandon’s TAPE site, Warren Nolan RPI site, Teamrankings.com, and KenPom.com.