For the first time this season, No. 4 Duke will on Saturday play a higher-ranked team than itself.
The Blue Devils (18-2, 6-2 ACC) will host No. 2 Virginia (19-1, 8-0 ACC) at Cameron Indoor Stadium. But for players like Duke freshman forward Marvin Bagley III, those rankings don’t really matter.
“Honestly, it’s basketball,” Bagley said. “You know the rankings, I don’t really pay attention to them. It’s whoever is going to play the hardest that night.”
“To me rankings don’t really matter. I just see it as a number in front of the team.”
Saturday’s game will be Duke’s biggest test since it revamped its defense after an embarrassing 96-85 loss to N.C. State on Jan. 6. Since then, Duke has won five straight conference games and hasn’t given up more than 75 points in a game.
But four of those games have come against Wake Forest and Pitt, two teams at the bottom of the ACC. The other game was against Miami, in a 83-75 come-from-13-behind road win on Jan. 15.
The Cavaliers present a different challenge for the Blue Devils. Virginia is the top-ranked defensive team in the country, according to kenpom.com. The Cavaliers, which like to slow games down, give up 81.5 points per 100 possessions.
Led by sophomore guard Kyle Guy (15.2 points per game) and senior wing Devon Hall (12.7 ppg), Virginia’s man-to-man defense is among the stingiest in the country. Clemson managed to only score 36 points against Virginia’s defense on Tuesday in a 61-36 Cavaliers’ win.
The most points Virginia has allowed in a game this season is 68 – in a 68-61 loss to West Virginia.
Scoring hasn’t been a problem for Duke this season. The Blue Devils have the second best offense in the country, averaging 126.6 points per 100 possessions. They had been ranked No. 1 for the majority of the season, but was was recently overtaken by Villanova.
Defense was its biggest issue after having lost two of its first three ACC games.
After the loss to N.C. State, Duke focused on its defense in practice and worked on communicating and sliding its feet. Playing against Wake and Pitt, gave Duke some time to practice it all.
“The last couple of weeks I’ve really seen us make progress in our defense, our feet,” Bagley said. “Everybody is talking way more. Everybody has been kind of communicating and on the same page when it comes to that.”
“I’m just happy to see we’ve grown on the defensive end.”
And things seem to be coming together at the right time.
As Bagley continues to get his (21.6 ppg, 11.5 rbg), some of Duke’s other key players are heating up. Freshman forward Wendell Carter Jr. has averaged 18.5 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game in the past four games. Freshman guard Gary Trent Jr. is averaging 21.2 points per game in the same time frame. And senior guard Grayson Allen, who was recently in a shooting slump, scored 17 against Wake Forest on Jan. 23.
Allen said the game against Virginia will be a physical one, and the team will have to realize that from the start.
“What they’re really good at is – a lot of times it looks like five guys are defending the ball because everybody is ready to help or recover,” Allen said. “And they do a great jobs with the rotations especially the big guys.”
“We just have to move the ball against them, and know that you can attack them. Don’t let them stand you up.”
No. 2 Virginia at No. 4 Duke
When: 2 p.m. Saturday
Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham