Virginia, Duke, Prepare for Saturday Slobberknocker

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Someone described Saturday night’s Virginia at Duke basketball showdown at Cameron Indoor Stadium as a “unification bout.” I prefer to use a term borrowed from UVa coach Tony Bennett’s dad, Dick Bennett, who calls these kinds of battles “slobberknockers.”

Both would be accurate as Virginia, No. 1 in the USA Today Coaches Poll and No. 1 in the Kenpom rankings, collides with Duke, No. 1 in the AP and Sagarin ratings. It’s a history-making matchup in that the two top teams in the respective major polls have never squared off in ACC play (only the fourth time in college basketball history).

Bennett’s Cavaliers are undefeated, alone atop the ACC standings, and own the nation’s longest road winning streak (13 games) and a 12-game road winning streak in ACC play.

All that said, UVa is a 2.5 underdog to Duke, which has lost back-to-back home games only twice since the turn of this century: 2007 vs. FSU and UNC; and 2016 vs. Notre Dame and Syracuse.  Speaking of Syracuse, the Orange stunned the Blue Devils at Cameron earlier this week, a game in which Duke point guard Tre Jones injured his shoulder and isn’t expected to play against Virginia.

The Cavaliers have won their last nine consecutive games against ranked teams, including two blowouts of top 10 teams since conference play began this month. Virginia pummeled then-No. 9 Florida State, then followed it up with another annihilation of No. 9 Virginia Tech earlier this week. Both of those games were in Charlottesville.

Playing at Duke is a different animal, a fact that UVa is very familiar with, posting a 9-52 record at Cameron, which features as hostile an atmosphere as one can find in college hoops.

However, with plenty of experience dotting the roster, the Cavaliers are not intimidated by their surroundings. They stunned the Blue Devils at Cameron last season when the No. 2 ranked Wahoos beat No. 4 Duke, 65-63 on the strength of a deep 3-pointer by Ty Jerome with 37 seconds remaining.

“Last year was definitely an awesome win, but it’s a whole new team,” Jerome said minutes after he helped bury Virginia Tech on Tuesday night. “We know how crazy the environment is, so last year is completely out the window.

“It’s a fresh, new game, but we understand how crazy Cameron is,” Jerome added. “We understand how loud they get when they go on runs. We know how talented this [Duke] team is, so we know we’re in for a real battle, but we’re ready for it.”

The college basketball world has been talking about this game for more than a week. It’s being hyped like a Duke-North Carolina game for goodness sakes, mostly because it’s Duke vs. anybody. Still, every game on TV the past week has hyped the game, every sports talk radio show has hyped the game.

Everybody it seems is calling this “Must See TV.” Well, everybody but Bill Walton, who said Saturday’s biggest game is Auburn vs. Kentucky. The big redhead might have sampled some peyote when he made that statement.

Virginia and Duke is much more than just No. 1 vs. No. 1. It’s a clash of philosophies, it’s a clash of styles, and it’s a clash of a longtime, traditional ACC basketball blueblood vs. a relatively new power in the league in UVa, a program that has been as good or better than Duke and North Carolina over the past half decade.

A lot of experts believe that the ACC title runs through Charlottesville, where the trophy presently rests by the way. Regardless of the winner in tonight’s game, that could remain true over the long haul. The rematch will occur in Charlottesville relatively soon, Feb. 9.

“If Mary Poppins was a team it would be Virginia basketball — practically perfect in every way,” said Bob Valvano, national radio analyst and brother of legendary Jim Valvano.

Bobby V was right. It’s hard to find fault in the 16-0 Cavaliers. They lead the nation in scoring defense (51.7), turnovers per game (8.9), fewest turnovers (142), 3-point field goal percentage defense (25.1 pct), and are third in scoring margin (22.6), and assist-to-turnovers ration (1.68).

While those are the numbers Bennett takes most pride in, this could be his most explosive offensive team in his 10-years at the helm of UVa’s program.

As Virginia Tech’s Buz Williams said, with space almost anyone on the team can make shots, so you’re stressed from the beginning. Rarely does Virginia force a shot and if a defense is late to a designated spot, the Cavaliers make them pay. Not only that, but UVa is extremely patient and can often score deep into the shot clock.

Part of that is because of experience, something that Duke doesn’t boast. The Blue Devils’ top four scorers are either 18 or 19 years old. Of course, they are talented, with the three projected top NBA Draft picks on Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s roster.

Meanwhile, Bennett’s top six players are all 21 years old.

It’s “One-and-Done” vs. a veteran team that boasts a senior and possibly three junior starters, along with a redshirt junior off the bench. That doesn’t mean UVa is void of talent. Redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter, an elite defender and lethal scorer, is ranked as a mid-first rounder in mock drafts.

Jerome, a junior, is also listed as a potential second-rounder.

That’s the philosophy clash as Krzyzewski has recruited a number of players who stick around for a season and then are gone, while Bennett prefers players who enroll for the long haul.

Style is another difference.

Duke plays greyhound fast. Virginia doesn’t.

The Blue Devils play at the seventh-fastest tempo in the country, 75.6 possessions per game on average, with each possession averaging 14.7 seconds.

Contrasting Virginia is dead last in the nation, last out of 353 teams, in possessions per game at 60.7, and those possessions average 20.4 seconds per, next-to-last in the country.

The team that establishes tempo early will gain an edge in this game. Normally it’s much easier to slow an opponent down than to speed one up. Duke has managed to force that tempo thanks the the presence of Jones, who applies tremendous on-ball pressure, forces turnovers that are converted into easy, sometimes devastating, will-breaking baskets.

In the Syracuse game, Jones had four steals in the first five minutes. With Jones on the bench, however, Duke becomes a different team. Krzyzewski doesn’t have another player of Jones’ ilk and that could weigh heavily in Virginia’s favor.

It will be interesting to see how and who defenses Duke’s freshman phenom Zion Williamson, a freak athlete at 6-7, 285, and has a 45-inch vertical leap. No, that is not a typo.

You might have seen his 360 dunk highlight reel.

His 68.4 percent effective field goal percentage (Sports-Reference) is the third-best posted by any 20-point or more scorer in college basketball since 1947-48. He has also made 111-for-144 (77 percent) of his shots at the rim this season.

We could go on, but you get the picture.

“He’s like Charles Barkley was, except he can shoot. And, he’s not as fat,” cracked Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim of Williamson after their recent matchup.

It’s difficult to determine whether this will be another “Game of the Century,” or as some talking head from ESPN classified this game:  “intergalactic.”

Certainly it has all the makings of living up to this hype, much like last year’s meeting at Cameron. College basketball fans hope to be so lucky.


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