Akil Mitchell and the Hoos hope to take down Duke at the JPJ.
After a game-ending 37-14 run turned a close encounter against Georgia Tech into an 82-54 blowout, the Virginia Cavaliers (19-8, 9-5 ACC) are back in action at home on Thursday night for a pivotal encounter against the Duke Blue Devils (24-3, 11-3 ACC). Will the Wahoos win their 16th straight game at the John Paul Jones Arena or fall victim to Duke for the 6th straight time since Tony Bennett took over as head coach? Find out in the Duke Primer.
1. Team Introduction. Last season, Duke finished 26-5 (13-3 ACC), including a tight 61-58 home victory over UVa. Then, after losing to Florida State in the ACC Tournament semifinals, the Blue Devils suffered a shocking 75-70 loss to No. 15 seed Lehigh in the NCAA Tournament. This season, Duke was picked to finish second in the ACC in both the preseason coaches and media polls, and that’s exactly where the Blue Devils stand at this point in the season. Duke went 13-0 in nonconference play, beating likely NCAA Tournament teams Minnesota, Louisville, and Ohio State in the process. None of Duke’s 13 out-of-conference games were true road games although the Blue Devils did play several neutral site games.
In ACC play, Duke is 11-3: 7-0 at home and 4-3 on the road. In their road games against likely NCAA Tournament teams, the Devils are 0-2, losing 84-76 at NC State and getting trounced, 90-63, by Miami in Coral Gables. Duke also dropped a close one, 83-81, against bubble team Maryland at the Comcast Center. In their other ACC road games, the Blue Devils easily beat Virginia Tech (88-56) and Florida State (79-60) and slipped by Wake Forest (75-70) and Boston College (62-61). Duke is No. 6 in KenPom, No. 7 in TAPE, and No. 1 in RPI.
2. Offense. Coach K’s teams employ his patented 3-out, 2-in motion offense, which starts with 3 guards outside the 3-point line and 2 players in the post. Then, through a series of screens, ball reversals, and drives followed by kick-outs, Duke gets the ball to open 3-point shooters or big men in the post when defenders cheat out on the perimeter. As always, Duke is lights out from 3-point range, ranking No. 3 nationally with 41.6% accuracy. But, for the first time in the Tony Bennett era, he Cavaliers are nearly their equals as they rank No. 6 nationally (40.4%). Importantly, Duke is a mere No. 213 in offensive rebounding percentage, and those numbers are actually worse since Duke has gone smaller after Ryan Kelly went down with a foot injury. UVa has been weaker than usual on the defensive glass given our front court attrition, but that shouldn’t be an issue against the Blue Devils, especially if Mike Tobey can provide some more quality minutes. Overall, Duke currently stands at No. 5 in adjusted offensive efficiency.
3. Defense. You know what you are going to get on the defensive end from a Duke team helmed by Coach K: tight man-to-man defense that both puts pressure on the ball and denies passing lanes. What the stats won’t tell you is that this could be the worst Duke defense that Virginia has faced since the start of the KenPom Ratings in 2002-2003. Duke currently ranks No. 22 in adjusted defensive efficiency, which looks decent enough and better than last year when the Blue Devils ranked a mere No. 70 in this category.
But take a look at this breakdown, which is now about a month old. Through early January, Duke had the services of senior big man Ryan Kelly who averaged 13.4 points per game, but, more importantly, 1.7 blocks per game. With Kelly in the line-up, Duke was a top 5 team in adjusted defensive efficiency. At the time that the linked article was written, Duke was merely a borderline top 100 defensive team without Kelly, who is out with a foot injury, and my numbers-crunching reveals that the Blue Devils haven’t improved significantly since that point in time. The problems are (a) that the Devils can’t play as aggressively on the perimeter without Kelly anchoring the defense in the paint; and (b) that athletic bigs can take advantage of the undersized line-up that Duke often puts on the floor. In other words, if Mike Tobey is ready to go again on Thursday, he could be in for a big night.
4. Player Turnover and Injuries. Last season’s leading scorer, Austin Rivers (15.5 PPG), is currently putting up some terrible stats for the Orlando Magic. Another guard, Andre Dawkins (8.4 PPG), is redshirting this season in the wake of his sister passing away. Big man Miles Plumlee (6.6 PPG) is seeing (very) limited action for the Indiana Pacers. Also, swingman Michael Gbinije (1.7 PPG) transferred to Syracuse. Finally, as noted, senior big man Ryan Kelly (13.4 PPG this season) is out with a foot injury.
5. Possible Starters. The first five for the Blue Devils …
Point Guard: Quinn Cook (No. 2), a 6’1″, 175-pound sophomore, should get the start at the “1.” After struggling quite a bit as a frosh, Cook has put together a quietly competent sophomore season. Cook is flying a bit under the radar because he’s 5th on the team in scoring, but he still averages 12.1 points per game. Many of his points come on drives in the lane, but Cook has also greatly improved his 3-point shooting, knocking down 41% of his 3.9 attempts per game. Cook is also looking to dish it when he gets in the lane much more than a season ago and is averaging 5.6 assists against only 2.4 turnovers per game. Cook is also an aggressive (some would say too aggressive) defender, registering 1.7 steals per game. Jontel Evans put together his best game of the season against Georgia Tech on Sunday, and the Hoos may need a repeat performance on Thursday.
Shooting Guard: Seth Curry (No. 30), a 6’2″, 185-pound redshirt senior (who previously played under UVa Associate Head Coach Ritchie McKay at Liberty), has been playing through a shin injury all year and also has had issues with his ankle but is still averaging 16.8 points per game. As you would expect from one of Del Curry’s kids, Seth is deadliest from 3-point range, where he shoots more than half of his shots, connecting on 43.7% of them. Curry does most of his shooting off of screens and has become a bit shot-happy this year. Compared to last season, when he played more lead guard, his shots per game have increased from 9.9 to a team-high 12.0, and his assists have decreased from 2.4 to 1.6. Defensively, Curry is a bit of a liability as he is lacking in length and lateral quickness. Assuming that Paul Jesperson is completely healthy, I like his chances to get his shot off against Curry and to be in his face defensively for most of the night.
Shooting Guard/Small Forward: Rasheed Sulaimon (No. 14), a 6’4″, 185-pound freshman, is the complete package. He can hit his 3-pointers (41.5% on 3.9 attempts per game), knock down the midrange jumper, and even take it to the hole for the hoop and the harm. Sulaimon averages 12.4 points per game and has a quick first step that can leave defenders flat-footed. He’s also a pretty solid distributor, notching 2.2 assists against only 1.3 turnovers per game. Defensively, Sulaimon has excellent lateral quickness and uses his length to disrupt field goal attempts by opposing players from all over the court. And the scary thing is that Sulaimon has shown complete disregard for the freshman wall. Instead, his last game against Boston College was possibly his best as he scored 27 points on 10-of-15 shooting. Joe Harris is going to have to use every ounce of his experience and court savvy to keep Sulaimon off the scoreboard and get his own shots off.
Power Forward: Josh Hairston (No. 15), a 6’7″, 240-pound junior, has started 3 of the last 4 games for the Blue Devils after coming off the bench for much of the season. A product of Montrose Christian, Hairston should find himself pitted against high school teammate Justin Anderson for much of the night. Hairston is the definition of a glue guy. His role is to set screens, help with spacing, and only shoot if he is wide open or next to the basket. Hairston averages a mere 2.5 shots and 2.9 points per game and is not a candidate to create his own shot. Defensively, Hairston is often undersized in the post but holds his own defensively and is good for drawing at least a charge a game. Since becoming a starter, Hairston’s 13.4 minutes per game has increased, with the junior playing 24, 21, and 19 in his most recent 3 games. The results, however, have been inconsistent. He did score 11 points in back-to-back games against Maryland and Virginia Tech, but those performances were sandwiched between 2 and 3 points respectively against UNC and Boston College. Although he is 3 years Hairston’s junior, I like Anderson in this match-up given his athleticism and explosiveness.
Center: Mason Plumlee (No. 5), a 6’10”, 235-pound senior, leads the Blue Devils in scoring with 17.5 points per game and also pulls down a team-high 10.7 rebounds a game to average a double-double. Plumlee is not a classic back-to-the basket post, but he does have a reliable hook shot and some nice moves that allow him to shoot 59.6% from the field. Plumlee is also no longer a liability at the free throw line, where he is shooting 66.2% compared to 52.8% last season. Where the senior still gets into trouble is when he tries to do much off the dribble, leading him to average 3 turnovers per game. Against the Pack-Line post trap, this could spell trouble for the big man. Plumlee is, however, excellent on the defensive side, where he averages 1.6 blocks and a steal a game. But he is susceptible to faster opponents, so Akil Mitchell could have some success with his spin move, speed, and athleticism.
6. Key Reserves. Some of the other key contributors …
Point Guard: Tyler Thornton (No. 3), a 6’1″, 190-pound junior, is a tough, emotional player known more for his defense than his offense. Thornton is basically a combo guard who is decent at shooting and distributing the ball but great at neither. Thornton’s bread and butter is his 3-point shot, with 2.2 of his 2.8 field goal attempts per game coming from behind the arc, where he connects at a 37.3% clip. Basically, Thornton makes about one 3-pointer per game as he averages 3.4 points per game. What this tells you is that Thornton makes his bones on the defensive side, where he is rugged and feisty, forcing 1.3 steals a game. Thornton averages 21.8 minutes per game.
Power Forward: Amile Jefferson (No. 21), a 6’8″, 195-pound freshman, is also primarily known for his defense although he did score 14 points against Boston College’s four guard line-up. On the season, though, Jefferson is only averaging 4.7 points per game in 14 minutes a game. At this point, Jefferson is better at using his length and athleticism to be a disruptive defender, but he certainly oozes potential on the offensive end.
And, that’s about it. With Ryan Kelly out, Duke basically has a seven-player rotation. We may see freshman forward Alex Murphy for a few minutes, and former UVa recruit Marshall Plumlee might make a token appearance, but neither is likely to make much of an impact in the game (although Murphy is starting to see his minutes increase.
7. Prediction. 504-C Brandon has this one as a 65-61.2 Duke victory with the Blue Devils having a 61.6% chance of winning.
Personally, I see Tony Bennett getting the victory over the last ACC team that he hasn’t beaten since joining the conference. Simply put, without Ryan Kelly , Duke is an average team both defensively and on the road. Combine that with the Blue Devils’ lack of size and offensive rebounding acumen, and I think that UVa can keep them in check offensively as long as they don’t have a “can’t miss” night from behind the arc. Given Virginia’s own improvements on the offensive side of the ball, I think that the Hoos put enough points on the board to come away with a 68-66 win.