Luke DeCock

In a best-on-best battle of Duke offense and Virginia defense, something has to give

Duke’s Allen and Bagley break down their upcoming game against Virginia

Senior captain and freshmen phenom both agree the team's different styles will provide a great game for fans Saturday afternoon.
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Senior captain and freshmen phenom both agree the team's different styles will provide a great game for fans Saturday afternoon.

Grayson Allen, who has been through it before, knows that Marvin Bagley III and Duke’s other freshmen have never seen anything like the bitter intensity or meticulous application of Virginia’s defense.

“We’re doing a lot of things in practice to try to get them prepared, but the physicality of the game is going be different,” Allen, the Duke senior guard, said. “I don’t think we can prepare for that, in combination with their pack-line defense. When we get into the game, we’re going to have to be strong from the get-go.”

Then again, Virginia hasn’t seen anything like Duke’s NBA-style offense and its collection of future NBA stars, either. There’s nothing else like it in college basketball.

There’s always a contrast in styles when Duke or North Carolina play Virginia, but it may never have been this stark. Ever. This is NBA-style offense vs. old-school college defense, video games vs. peach baskets, pace vs. patience, fire vs. ice.

And it will be a mental struggle as much as it will be physical. Strength on strength. Will against will. Something has to give.

Virginia is the nation’s most efficient defensive team and the slowest-paced team in all of Division I. In terms of raw numbers, the Cavaliers are No. 1 as well, allowing 51.6 points per game. Only West Virginia comes close in terms of defensive disruption, and that’s with an attacking, trapping, pressing mentality that’s the opposite of Virginia’s defensive pack-line passive-aggression.

This may be the most quintessential of all Virginia coach Tony Bennett’s teams, with each player filling a specific and defined role that makes the most of his skill set: the rim defense of junior center Jack Salt; the efficient offense of sophomore guard Ty Jerome, redshirt senior guard Devon Hall and sophomore guard Kyle Guy; the overall versatility of senior forward Isaiah Wilkins and redshirt freshman guard De’Andre Hunter. There isn’t someone like former UVa players Joe Harris or Justin Anderson or Malcolm Brogdon who any ACC school would find a way to fit into its lineup, but these guys fit Virginia perfectly both with and without the ball, which is the true essence of Bennett’s coaching genius.

Duke’s offense, meanwhile, is nearly unmatched in college basketball. No one scores more than Duke’s 92.7 points per game and only Villanova is more efficient. There’s really no equivalent anywhere for the combo of two high-scoring big men – freshmen Bagley and Wendell Carter – who can step out and shoot the 3-pointer along with two long, explosive guards – Gary Trent Jr. and Allen, both 6-5 or taller – and Trevon Duval, a point guard who, while going through some freshman struggles at the moment, is still capable of scoring in bunches himself.

Duke has scored 80 or more points in 16 straight games, a run exceeded by only four teams in ACC history. Two were national champions considered among the best teams of their time – N.C. State in 1974 and Duke in 2001 – a third went to the Final Four and all four won the ACC title.

That streak will be put to the test Saturday.

Virginia hasn’t allowed 80 points in regulation since Tennessee did it in December 2013. It has happened three times since, all in games that went to overtime – two of them, double overtime. Over the past five-plus seasons, it has only happened five times. Virginia only won one of those games.

Over the years, Duke’s future pros have had a distinct edge on Virginia’s pack-line collegians. Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is 9-2 against Bennett, whose hiring in March 2009 aligns him with the beginning of Duke’s one-and-done era. And even if Krzyzewski padded his numbers while Bennett was building his program, Duke has still won three in a row dating back to a loss in Greensboro in the 2014 ACC tournament. (And Virginia hasn’t won at Duke since 1995, a streak which transcends four different coaches.)

IMG_DUKE-REACT-01.jpg_2_1_P540R8LB_L103631807
Duke guard Tyus Jones (5) reacts after hitting a three pointer that put the game away as Duke upset undefeated Virginia 69-63 at John Paul Jones Arena at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Va Saturday, January 31, 2015. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

That includes the 2015 win in Charlottesville where Duke came from 11 behind late in the second half to stun the Cavaliers on the Blue Devils’ way to the national title (Virginia exited early at the hands of an underseeded and red-hot Michigan State team on its way to a Final Four defeat by Duke). Duke was clearly the superior team that year, as it would go on to prove.

But Virginia appeared to be the better team in 2016, even though it was upended in the NCAA tournament by an adequately seeded but even hotter Syracuse team in the regional finals, only to lose a hotly disputed game in Durham. Brandon Ingram led the Blue Devils in scoring and Allen topped Brogdon’s would-be game-winner with a buzzer-beater of his own.

Duke’s Jayson Tatum took care of things in Charlottesville last year, earning a “Jiminy Christmas” from Krzyzewski.

It’s hard to tell which team is the better one this season, at this point. It’s only the 15th matchup of top-five teams in the history of Cameron Indoor Stadium, which is quite a number considering how much time Duke, North Carolina and the rest of the ACC have spent occupying the top five spots in the Associated Press poll. (Five of the 15 are UNC-Duke games.)

But this diametric contrast of styles will have to produce a winner, one way or the other, and even if Duke can’t catch Virginia for the regular-season title – even with a win, the Blue Devils would still be a game back, while a Virginia win would give the Cavaliers an all-but-insurmountable three-game lead in the standings over the only team that looks equipped to catch them – what happens Saturday will set the tone for a potential Brooklyn rematch.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

Virginia at Duke

When: 2 p.m., Saturday

Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham

TV: CBS

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