Potential Final Four matchups in the regular season are special.
The same teams meeting twice over a three-week span? They need to be treasured in a time when conference expansion has made such arrangements rare.
So let’s stop and thank those basketball gods that Mike Krzyzewski routinely references for Saturday’s 6 p.m. matchup between No. 2 Duke and No. 3 Virginia on ESPN.
The Blue Devils (20-2, 8-1 ACC) beat the Cavaliers (20-1, 8-1), 72-70, at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Jan. 19. Virginia hopes to protect its home court at John Paul Jones Arena just as well in Charlottesville this weekend.
In addition to the implications to the ACC regular-season standings and NCAA tournament seedings, this game offers a delicious contrast in styles.
“It is completely different stuff out of two No. 1 seeds and great clubs,” said Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, whose team faced both over a three-day stretch last month. “The grinding and slower pace of Virginia and then the come at your throat stuff of Duke.”
The battle of wills offers plenty of intrigue.
Both are among the nation’s best in scoring and defending.
Virginia, No. 1 overall in Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, is No. 2 in defensive efficiency (84.6) and No. 5 in offensive efficiency (120.6).
Duke, No. 2 overall in KenPom, is No. 4 in both defense (87.3) and offense (122.1).
When they played in Durham, Duke scored 1.14 points per possession while Virginia was at 1.11.
Virginia’s defense is designed to stop teams from driving into the lane for easier shots. Yet Duke’s athleticism, with freshmen Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones, is better than any team at doing just that.
“They obviously do such a great job of creating off dribble and use their spacing,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “Then when they get to the rim they can certainly make plays. You just have to be as good as you can on the ball. When help is required you have to help. We are are always working on that. That’s something we value in our system. They test it in certain ways that a lot of people don’t. It’s certainly important.”
Barrett (23 points per game) and Williamson (22 points) are the ACC’s top two scorers. They combined for 57 of Duke’s 72 points against Virginia last month.
“Virginia can jam the lane and keep drivers out better than anybody in the country,” Brey said. “That’s who they are. That’s what they’ve done and they’ve got experienced guys that can do it. But what happens is you physically can’t do it sometimes against Duke’s just freakish athletes. You can say `We’re going to jam it up. We’re going to roll over and help.’ But they are still getting there because of their sheer athletic ability and speed. That’s the thing that shocked me. We couldn’t rotate. Again, we’re not Virginia defensively. But sometimes you just can’t get there.”
That’s just one interesting topic surrounding this game. Here are three others:
The impact of Tre Jones
Jones didn’t play against Virginia last month as he was out with a separated shoulder. Duke changed on the fly, using a ball rotation offense out front where either Williamson or Barrett wound up with the ball before attacking the lane.
Duke’s undisputed on-court leader, Jones’ presence in Duke’s lineup on Saturday night will change the way the Blue Devils play against Virginia this time.
“He’s such a key guy for us, not just on-ball,” Krzyzewski said. “He’s a heck of a defender and getting our guys united. But he’s really led our team in valuing the ball on offense and getting us in the right sets to attack the defenses that we face.”
Without Jones, Duke had just six assists on 26 made field goals against Virginia on Jan. 19. That’s a 23.1 assist percentage. For the season, Duke has assisted on 52.6 percent of its field goals.
Jones averages 5.5 assists per game, tied for the ACC lead with Virginia Tech’s Justin Robinson. So expect better ball movement from the Blue Devils.
“He’s a terrific player,” Bennett said. “He’s complete offensively and of course defensively. He allows them to play they way they are playing.”
That statement is even more true on defense. Jones’ ability to lock down the opposing team’s ball-handler beginning in the backcourt sets up Duke’s aggressive defense. Even if Jones doesn’t record a steal, his pressure often leads to a poor pass that is deflected or stolen by Barrett, Williamson or Reddish.
That leads to the kind of fast-break points that are normally rare against Virginia.
The 3-point shooting by both teams was poor in the first game. Duke won despite hitting only 2 of 14 (14.3 percent). Virginia made 3 of 17 (17.6 percent).
The Blue Devils have only made 30.8 percent of their 3-pointers this season, while Virginia is at 39.4 percent.
The Cavaliers figure to shoot better from behind the arc in the rematch. Duke, meanwhile, will probably have to rely on transition points, which it didn’t have in last month’s game, to make up the difference.
The Blue Devils average 87 points per game, second in the ACC behind North Carolina’s 88.3.
So Krzyzewski isn’t fretting about all those 3-pointers his guys are missing. He’s focusing on the big picture.
“It’s a balance of scoring,” Krzyzewski said. “I think we’re better shooters than our percentage. We’re one of the leading offensive teams in the country. So if you just focus on the one thing that you’re not doing to the level of everything else, then you are not taking care of the things that you do at a high level.”
The battle for No. 1
The NCAA Selection Committee will release its first seedings snapshot at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday. Duke and Virginia both figure to be among the four No. 1 seeds.
Another Duke win over the Cavaliers could loom large next month when the tournament bracket is finalized. Depending upon how Virginia finishes, that fact could be the difference between a No. 1 or a No. 2 seed.
Virginia still has road games at North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Louisville over the final half of ACC play.
If the teams split their two meetings, it will equalize their resumes come bracket-filling time for the committee.
Yes, they could meet a third time in the ACC tournament. But that’s not a guarantee.
As for the ACC tournament, this game should play a large factor in determining the No. 1 seed in Charlotte.
Virginia has finished first in the regular season three times in the last five years. While Duke won the 2017 ACC tournament title, Duke hasn’t won the regular-season race to earn the tournament’s top seed since 2010.
How long ago was that? Zion Williamson was 9-year-old elementary school student.
“Winning the league has been one of our goals since we got back in the summer,” Duke junior forward Javin DeLaurier said. “We haven’t won since, like, 2010 or 2011 in the regular season. So it’s been a while. It’s long overdue. It’s definitely important in terms of that.”