We’ve had a No. 1 vs. No. 3 matchup in college basketball already this season, when Duke went down to Gonzaga. Saturday pits the AP No. 1 Duke against No. 4 Virginia. It’s a 1-2 matchup in the Coaches Poll that Virginia tops with Duke immediately behind.
Duke will fall from No. 1 on Monday regardless after losing at home to Syracuse earlier this week. If this game weren’t happening when it is, Virginia would be set to pass Duke in the AP but it would be strange for a team to beat another and then get passed in the polls, which means Duke has a chance to hold off Virginia and remain the highest ranked team in the ACC with a win.
When March comes around, though, this game could carry some weight in the seedings and where each team plays but it won’t be much more than that, and a teaching point, for the two national title contenders participating.
Duke is a slight favorite at home with a total around 140. Tip is set for 6:00 pm from Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Duke’s loss to Syracuse — just its second all season after a two-point loss vs. Gonzaga on a neutral floor — came by four points in overtime. The Blue Devils weren’t at full strength, either. Cam Reddish had the flu and didn’t play; Tre Jones sprained the AC joint in his shoulder and left the game after just six minutes and didn’t return.
Zion Williamson put his team on his back and scored 35 points. RJ Barrett added 23 but Jack White went 0-for-10 from 3-point range and Syracuse shot an unusually good 11-for-25 from deep. Jimmy Boeheim moved to 3–2 against Duke in the thrilling era of the ACC rivalry.
Reddish will be back for this game but Jones will not. That’s problematic for Duke because Jones leads the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio and is considered the glue guy; he also plays tenacious defense against the opposing point guard, in this case that will be Ty Jerome.
With Jones out against Syracuse, White took over a lot of the point responsibilities from the forward spot. He dished out five assists without a turnover, which helped ease the damage of his 0-for-10. I would expect more of the same, with mostly he and Barrett initiating offense from the top and Williamson slashing. Reddish will also iso off the wing and space the floor.
But there is almost nothing this Virginia defense does not excel at. The Cavaliers have only forced 201 turnovers, which is 301st in the country, because they don’t actively press up on the ball but rather pack it in the middle. That will limit Duke’s effectiveness playing iso-ball.
Otherwise, Virginia is fourth in opponents’ field goal percentage (37%), first in 3-point percentage (25.1%) and seventh in terms of the number of offensive rebounds it has given up. As always, this is a well-coached, smart and organized team. UVA is a perfect 16–0 and almost every win has come by double-digits, despite the slow pace that it plays at.
I would expect this game to go under. I’m not quite confident enough to play it, but my gut tells me it’s going to be slow and a bit of a defensive struggle. Certainly that favors the points, though the points aren’t very many in this case. Stylistically, I’m not convinced it benefits Virginia though.
Duke has to win this game with defense. If it can turn up the pressure on Virginia and force some uncharacteristic turnovers and bad shots, it will get some easy, and necessary, buckets in transition. Otherwise, the Blue Devils are going to live on free throws (remember, they’re at home) and some pro-level shots from pro-level prospects.
Virginia is healthier and, arguably, better right now but that explains the small spread. Duke, as a team, is a transcendent talent and will ride that athleticism advantage and a bounce-back game from White to a scrappy win at home. I’ve got the Devils in a narrow cover.
Play: Duke -1.5