Three things to watch as Duke and Virginia clash in a battle of No. 1 teams

Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse own the ACC’s most recent Final Four appearances.

The Tar Heels (2017) and Blue Devils (2015) have delivered the conference NCAA championships over the last five seasons.

Virginia, though, has established itself as the league’s best team in the regular season.

The No. 4-ranked Cavaliers (16-0, 4-0 in ACC) are in first place in the league standings by themselves ahead of Saturday’s showdown with No. 1 Duke (14-2, 3-1).

This comes after Virginia went 17-1 in league play last season. Over the last five seasons, Virginia has 73 ACC regular-season wins, compared to 63 each for Duke and UNC.

While their upset loss to Maryland-Baltimore County in last season’s NCAA tournament is noteworthy, it doesn’t change what the Cavaliers have accomplished in league play.

On Saturday night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke hopes to knock the Cavaliers down a peg when they meet at 6 p.m. on ESPN.

It’s a monumental matchup. The Cavaliers are ranked No. 1 in the coaches poll, while Duke is No. 1 in the Associated Press media poll. It’s just the fourth time the top-ranked teams in the two polls have met.

Virginia won the ACC tournament title last season. Duke won it the year before.

“We are looking forward to the challenge as they are a great team,” Duke junior forward Jack White said, “one of the best in the country and obviously undefeated so it is going to be a big game for us and a big game for us to prove ourselves and prove our maturity.”

Here are three things to watch in showdown between Duke and Virginia:

Tre Jones availability

It’s impossible to analyze this game without talking about Tre Jones. The freshman point guard injured his right shoulder last Monday night in the first half of Syracuse’s 95-91 overtime win over Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Duke has yet to rule him out of the game as Jones’ shoulder, which suffered a separation, was healed enough that he was at practice doing some drills without his sling on Thursday. He’s come along way since he was writhing in pain on the court last Monday night. But he still has some healing to do before he can return to play.

Jones is considered among the best on-ball defenders in the country and is a key to Duke’s defense being at its best.

“I think Duke can certainly win without Tre Jones,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said Friday. “They are certainly a formidable basketball team. But with Jones they are a completely different team. I don’t know how much better. But they are significantly better.”

Duke’s perimeter shooting

The Blue Devils have made 31.8 percent of their 3-pointers this season. That’s 267th in the country. Virginia’s opponents have made 25.1 percent, which gives the Cavaliers the best 3-point defense in the country.

The Blue Devils made just 9 of 43 (20.9 percent) of their 3-pointers in the loss to Syracuse with White going 0-for-10.

The Cavaliers’ defense is adept at clogging the middle, which will make things more difficult for Duke to get easy baskets. Zion Williamson had 35 points against Syracuse’s 2-3 zone and is capable of scoring against anyone.

But the Blue Devils will need to hit some 3-pointers along the way and Virginia is very good at contesting them.

“The thing Virginia does better than anyone else I’ve seen is they anticipate, they on the flight of the ball,” Bilas said. “They call it air time, so when the ball is in the air they are moving so they are there on the catch and they are in the right position on the catch when they are off the ball. They do a great job of recovering.”

Duke’s steals

With Jones, Duke is an elite defensive team that uses steals to fuel its transition offense. Duke is No. 3 in the country, averaging 10.8 steals per game. Jones averages 2.1 steals per game.

Jones had four in the first six minutes against Syracuse before he was injured Monday night. The Blue Devils had only two in the 25 minutes of play in the second half and overtime.

Duke played that game without Cam Reddish as well. The 6-8 Reddish averages 1.9 steals per game. His season total of 29 is only four behind Jones.

Virginia’s plodding style of play limits the amount of possessions and the opportunity for Duke to create steals and turnovers.

But the Blue Devils must get in the passing lanes and maximize the times they can prevent the Cavaliers from getting a shot off on a possession. This Virginia team can shoot. The Cavaliers have made 40.8 percent of their 3-pointers this season, good for No. 7 in the country.

They are also a better free-throw shooting team than Duke. Virginia’s 77.7 percent accuracy is No. 9 in the country, while Duke’s 67.7 percent is No. 255.

Get Sports Pass for ACC basketball

Follow Joe Giglio, Steve Wiseman, Jonathan Alexander, Chip Alexander and Luke DeCock. Sign up for The N&O's digital sports-only subscription for only $30 per year.

Read Next

An Illinois native, Steve Wiseman has covered Duke athletics since 2010 for the Durham Herald-Sun and Raleigh News & Observer. Prior to his arrival in Durham, he worked for newspapers in Columbia and Spartanburg, S.C., Biloxi, Miss., and Charlotte covering beats including the NFL’s Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints, University of South Carolina athletics and the S.C. General Assembly.