Virginia Basketball Double Bonus: Duke

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Virginia lsot for the first time this season.
De’Andre Hunter shoots at Duke. ~ Photo courtesy Matt Riley/Virginia Athletics Media Relations

For a few hours on Saturday, the Virginia basketball team stood as the only undefeated team in the land. That set up a showdown between two teams carrying a No. 1 ranking at the moment and the duel lived up to the billing when it comes to competitiveness. Duke and UVA played an intense see-saw contest that eventually tipped the Blue Devils’ way, 72-70.

The theater drew plenty of eyeballs to the television screen. The game between ACC powers pulled in a 2.6 overnight rating, which ESPN noted was tied for the highest-rated college basketball game on ESPN since 2014. That’s become par for the course in this matchup, though. The February 2017 contest secured the highest ratings for a college basketball game in over a year on ESPN2 and was the most-streamed ESPN2 men’s college hoops game ever at the time. The January 2018 meeting on CBS clicked off a 2.0 rating (3 million viewers), the second highest viewership of the season at the time on any network.

In other words, it seems like the general basketball watching fans love to tune in to Duke-Virginia. The rematch at the John Paul Jones Arena is Saturday, February 9. Before everyone looks ahead to that one, however, the Double Bonus takes one more look at round one.

More On The Defense

In my initial look at the game in this article Sunday, I referenced how UVA’s usually reliable defense failed to plug the gaps against the Blue Devils. On viewing the game a second time, that impression remained true but I was also struck by just how poor the initial on-ball defense was throughout the game too. That contributed to some of the help struggles because often Duke broke down the defense off the dribble quickly with limited moves or dribbling. There were a lot of one hard dribble past the on-ball defender as that offensive player slashed into the gaps. Cavalier coach Tony Bennett mentioned his team’s slides in the halftime interview on ESPN and he said the film review showed some issues.

“Defensively, there were some moments of good defense but I didn’t think we were good enough defensively to win that game,” Bennett said on his weekly radio show. “Zion and RJ Barrett are so talented and part of that is their ability one on one to create, but we probably needed to just be better with our help defense. They either split us or we weren’t as strong as we needed to be, partly their talent, partly we were just not as sharp in certain situations. Guys played hard. I said that after. I had no problem with the effort, just our soundness or discipline in certain stretches was enough [to cost us].”

In the days since the game, the message boards have been hopping with suggestions on how to fix those defensive issues. Using a zone, a la Syracuse in its win against Duke the previous Monday, has been a popular suggestion. I don’t think that’s the solution, though if the Hoos threw it in as a change-of-pace option for a possession for few, I don’t think it would be a disaster or take away from the bread-and-butter Pack Line. The solution, in my mind, is to clean up the on-ball defense. Perhaps, trying to heat up the ball a little later or lower on the floor could help contain the first step of RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson, but by and large I think the biggest answer Bennett will seek is simple. Do better with your first slide defensively and be more ready in the help spots.

“I talked to the team, that environment, for anybody’s who has not been in there, it’s a frenzy and it can make a lot of teams melt in that environment and I said ‘That didn’t happen to you guys, didn’t happen to us,’” Bennett said on his radio show. “But it can make you a little, I thought defensively, a little concerned or your almost become consumed or selfish like ‘Where’s my guy?’ You can lose your bearings a little bit. I don’t know if it was the talent of those guys being able to break us down and being able to break us down and being worried about how spaced they were, but that part I thought needed to stand stronger. That’s a valuable thing to learn.”


Both teams spent a lot of time switching defenders against actions from the offense. Duke switched every screen and almost every exchange of any kind with every player on the court, while Virginia mostly switched handoffs and ball screens. With that strategy in place, both coaches chose to run some actions to draw the switch and then spaced the floor to take advantage of matchups. If you haven’t seen this video, it does a good job of breaking down some of the specifics.

For all of the discussion about Duke’s switching and UVA’s defensive breakdowns even with switching, it seems fairly clear that the switching strategy didn’t really work for either team. Early in the game, for example, De’Andre Hunter set a screen to get Jack White switched into coverage. Hunter simply faced him up and shot over him for a clean jumper. Kyle Guy’s first half 3-pointer came after Marques Bolden got switched on to him and he simply beat him for the jumper. There was a possession where Ty Jerome got White on him too, drove past, and lobbed to Mamadi Diakite for the easy bucket. On the other end, RJ Barrett blew past Jerome after the Hoos switched on Duke’s dribble handoff weave action. And Williamson managed to drive downhill against just about any defender that switched his way.

For the game, credited UVA with a 113.3 offensive efficiency rating on 62 possessions and Duke with a 113.6 offensive efficiency rating on 63 possessions. Per the Synergy Sports data, Bolden finished at 2.0 points per possession (ppp), White at 1.33, Barrett at 1.20, and Williamson at 1.12. For the Cavaliers, Braxton Key posted 1.38 ppp, with Jay Huff at 1.33, Jack Salt at 1.25, Guy at 1.08, and Hunter at 1.06; it listed Jerome at .88 ppp (remember, he struggled in the first half). Together, per Synergy, the teams used isolation a combined 23 times with 17 of those remaining as single coverage possessions (no help).

Defensively, Bolden gave up points on eight charted Synergy possessions. Duke’s Cam Reddish gave up points on six and White allowed points on five. For Virginia, Hunter gave up points on five charted Synergy possessions, while Jerome, Key, and Kihei Clark were tagged three times each. Jerome appeared to struggle quite a bit with containment defense, while some others simply got muscled out of the way.

Duke’s solution to the issues was to try zone for a total of eight possessions. The hosts first went zone with Hunter out of the game ahead of a media timeout. At the time, with Salt and Clark in the game, UVA still got a decent 3-point look for Guy at the top of the key that he missed and a baseline foul on a Key move. His free throw trip made it 55-55. When Hunter entered the game, he drove and got blocked (that ball went out to Guy, who missed a 3-pointer). Later, Key was fouled on baseline drive again and the free throws made it 59-58 Duke. Near the 4:30 mark, Hunter caught a low-high pass from Salt, faced up Williamson, and scored to make it 61-60.

While the flip to zone may have disrupted UVA’s rhythm, Guy missed two good looks from 3-point range (one not mentioned on the wing) and the one where the ball pinged out to him after the blocked shot. Key also missed an open corner triple. If any of those shots go down, would the move be viewed the same? We don’t know. In the end, the eight possessions of Duke zone resulted in points for the Hoos on just three of them.

Duke Out Of Bounds Bucket

Following a called 30-second timeout by Duke, Zion Williamson scored a bucket on a baseline inbounds play that gave his team a 61-58 lead. There really wasn’t anything fancy about it. The Blue Devils spread their four players across the floor and then Williamson dove right down the lane toward the ball. The pass came through a small window, but got to him with Hunter on his inside. Hunter was too far under the rim at that point to do anything about it and Williamson dunked the ball.

You can see the end of it in the condensed game here:

ESPN announcer Jay Bilas said that doesn’t happen often to UVA. He’s right. Per Synergy Sports, the Hoos have allowed just .463 points per possession (ppp) on opponents’ baseline out of bounds plays. That gets an ‘excellent’ rating in the data. Of note, they’ve also allowed just .704 ppp after a timeout this season and that’s again ‘excellent’ in the Synergy database.

On the flipside, Virginia’s offense has not been as good in those situations. The Hoos have scored .743 ppp on baseline inbounds plays and .808 ppp after timeouts this season, both of which rate ‘below average’ in the Synergy database.

Jay Huff And Other Thoughts

  • Jay Huff continues to wow fans with some of flashy plays of late. Against Duke, much like a week earlier against Clemson, he took the ball from the 3-point line to the basket with one dribble for a dunk. That dunk came on poor Duke defense against UVA’s standard ‘Sides’ motion; the Devils didn’t switch for one of the few times all night and when the ball was driven to the baseline, it brought Marques Bolden down in help. The ball went back to Huff where he got Bolden off his feet with a fake and then took the one-dribble slam.
  • Of note, Huff’s first dunk came on a slipped ball screen that confused Duke’s switching strategy. In the second half, Huff used a fake handoff into a dribble drive and assisted on a bucket for Braxton Key. Later, the same move led Huff into a post-up, but he turned the ball over trying to pass to Mamadi Diakite.
  • The first four possessions of the half went to Mamadi Diakite on offense. The Hoos missed a pass to him when he slipped a screen and cut toward the rim, resulting in a turnover. He missed middle post move (an offensive rebound on that possession eventually led to a Hunter driving layup). He missed a fade-away attempt on the left block turning away from a late double team. Finally, he missed a corner 3-pointer. On the next trip, UVA tried to get a high-low look from Jack Salt to Diakite but it wasn’t open (the possession ended with a Hunter driving turnover). Later, Salt scored in the post on a switch vs. Jack White. After a Ty Jerome 3-pointer, the Cavaliers went back to Salt in post and he got a foul call on Williamson ahead of the under 16 media timeout. The Hoos turned away from a post-up strategy the rest of the way for the most part.
  • With the Duke zone discussion above and all over the message boards, this is a good place to note that UVA currently scores .946 ppp against zones for a ‘good’ rating in Synergy. That’s well behind last season’s effort against zones when the Hoos scored 1.06 ppp against zones for an ‘excellent’ rating in Synergy. It will be interesting to monitor that number going forward.
  • Braxton Key continues to earn more minutes in my mind. He gives the team a valuable versatility piece.
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1 Responses You are logged in as Test

  1. Fantastic breakdowns. I learned a lot, especially from the first video. But, for God’s sake, please find some new music. In the video it sounded like some bizarre mashup of elevator/porn music that just set my teeth on edge.

    I completely agree with your assessment of Braxton Key. He played some very valuable minutes in the game. He seems to have found a confidence that was missing earlier in the season. It really shows on offense where it seems like he has mojo working now.

    Overall, great job. The high level discussions (for the most part lol) on the b’ball board and your in depth analysis help me to enjoy a fantastic season even more. Thank you.

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