Following the biggest swoon in seven years in which Duke lost four of five games, the Blue Devils have won three straight contests including the biggest win of the season, over Louisville. Next up, the biggest test of the season against Virginia.
Virginia enters Cameron Indoor Stadium as a two point underdog despite being ranked No. 7 in the nation, while the Blue Devils are unranked. Both teams began their league play in a shaky manner with Duke’s losing streak and the Cavaliers losing three of four - all three being road losses to unranked teams.
And, as you’d expect from top notch coaches like Mike Krzyzewski and Tony Bennett, both teams have recovered in a big way. Both teams are not only recovered, but they are also getting better and the results have followed as Duke has won four of five while the Cavliers are on a seven game tear.
Here are some questions that will need to be answered heading into the weekend.
(1) Can the kids play with the men? - The Cavaliers have an experienced roster the doesn’t make a lot of mistakes and who have been through the various wars of the ACC. Three of their top players are seniors Malcolm Brogdon and Anthony Gill who team with junior London Perorates. That kind of experience is invaluable for a system that relies heavily on efficient offense and grinding (and sometimes soul-crushing) packline defense. Duke counters with a very young group that’s long on talent, and really can’t say much when it comes to experience. But, they’re learning each game and there’s a chance they get older because…
(2) There’s a chance… that Amile Jefferson could give it a go this week. The senior’s return has been rumored this week, but the various official words this week have been less optimistic. Both head coach Mike Krzyzewski and associate head coach Jeff Capel said that Jefferson was back on the court, but was still dealing with pain in his foot. And Duke wasn’t going to put the 6-foot-9 forward back on the court with pain. It’s unlikely there will be any kind of announcement when Jefferson does return, and it’ll probably be known when the layup lines form before the game (whichever game that is). So…will it be Saturday?
(3) Can Duke play fast, but under control? If you want to beat the Cavaliers you need to know how to attack them. The key for the Blue Devils will be attack Virginia in transition which means point guard Derryck Thornton will have to have a solid game. Not only in pushing the tempo, but also valuing the ball and taking good shots. In addition, Duke can find holes in the pack-line but driving and kicking out. It’s the exact strategy you saw a year ago when the Blue Devils rallied in Charlottesville.
Duke has a chance to prove that the team has turned the corner for this season and is preparing for a run in March. In a year that has shown college basketball is lacking a great team or teams, the tournament season is going to be crazy. Back to back wins over Louisville and Virginia at this time of year paired with the return of Jefferson could signal a somewhat unexpected (as of a few weeks ago) run for these Blue Devils. To take that next step, however, Duke needs to rebound, value the ball, and manage foul trouble through changes in the defense (man to man and zone) as well as switching on match-ups. This should be one of the more entertaining games of the weekend, and we expect a two or three possession final margin at the most. The pick…