Prime time, man. Prime time. On the eve of March - college basketball's holy month - the big fish comes to town. It's such a big game that I polished off a scotch before writing this post, the better to make it a good one. Scotch brings out the wordsmith in me. UVA's postseason aspirations don't exactly hinge on Thursday's showdown with Duke, but a win would do wonders for their positioning. At ITA this week I wrote about the ACC tournament, specifically how it would be really nice to finally have some success there, and beating Duke would put the Hoos in a nearly unbeatable position for what is turning out to be a very important race for third seed. Not only that, but it just might give Jerry Palm** a reason to reconsider his position.
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Date/Time: Thursday, February 28; 9:00
Record against the Blue Devils: 48-115
Last meeting: Duke 61, UVA 58; 1/12/12, Charlottesville
Last game: UVA 82, GT 54 (2/24); Duke 89, BC 68 (2/24)
UVA: 60.6 (#338)
Duke: 68.5 (#62)
UVA: 111.2 (#31)
Duke: 118.9 (#5)
UVA: 88.8 (#21)
Duke: 89.0 (#22)
UVA: .9096 (#17)
Duke: .9511 (#6)
PG: Jontel Evans (4.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 5.3 apg)
SG: Paul Jesperson (5.1 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.0 apg)
SF: Joe Harris (16.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 2.2 apg)
SF: Justin Anderson (7.0 ppg, 3.0 rpg, 2.3 apg)
PF: Akil Mitchell (12.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.5 apg)
PG: Quinn Cook (12.1 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 5.6 apg)
SG: Seth Curry (16.8 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 1.6 apg)
SG: Rasheed Sulaimon (12.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.2 apg)
PF: Josh Hairston (2.9 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 0.3 apg)
C: Mason Plumlee (17.5 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 2.0 apg)
-- UVA on offense
The first thing that popped off the page, in looking over Duke's defensive numbers, is this: they don't let you shoot many threes, and the ones you do shoot rarely go in. This seems odd; you'd think that going up against a guy like Mason Plumlee, you would want to stay out of the paint. Well, the actual truth is this: Plumlee cleans the boards like a fiend, but when it comes to the nuts and bolts of defense, as well as good clean shotblocking, he's kind of average. Well, better than average, but not transcendently great. The truth? We've faced better paint defenders in the past.
Tony Bennett's game plan against Georgia Tech kept Daniel Miller guessing all day long, and it resulted in him being out of position to affect a shot, and zero shot blocks to boot. Something similar will likely be run against Plumlee. Plumlee is much more athletic than Miller, so it's not necessarily guaranteed to work, but in this regard you can consider the GT game a nice little warmup for gameplanning against Plumlee.
Really, the reason teams don't shoot many threes on Duke is because their guards are quicker than almost anyone else's, and don't need to sag way off in order to prevent a drive to the lane. And they can close out well if caught slightly out of position. But UVA will almost always enjoy a huge size advantage at at least one backcourt position. Seth Curry is 6'2", Tyler Thornton is 6'1". Rasheed Sulaimon is 6'4" and will probably draw Joe Harris, lest Harris post someone up the way he repeatedly did against GT. Coach K surely watched the GT tape and is not stupid. However, Paul Jesperson and Justin Anderson are 6'6". K has started Josh Hairston lately, but with Anderson almost certain to start again, he might go with Thornton.
This would be easier for the Dookies if they had Ryan Kelly, but they don't. So UVA will almost always enjoy a matchup advantage. It might force them to play 6'8" Amile Jefferson much more than they'd like (maybe even start him) as he's really the only one they have with the physical makeup not to let an Evan Nolte or a Joe Harris let it fly over his head.
However, the quickness of Duke's guards is not to be overlooked. All three of them; Cook, Curry, and Sulaimon. They're very disruptive and if you try to get fancy they can make you regret it. UVA doesn't want to get in a late shot-clock situation because Jontel Evans doesn't have the ability to consistently get past Duke's guards and make a play with time running out. Mfon Udofia is one thing. Duke is quite another. That means UVA is going to have to walk a very fine line between patience and a sense of urgency. In other words, this is going to be a game where UVA does something and you wonder why they can't do that all the time.... and then there'll be possessions that make you wonder how we ever managed a bucket at all. Make the former happen more often than the latter and we're in good shape.
-- UVA on defense
Obviously, this is a major challenge. Duke has one of the most efficient and prolific offenses in the nation. Under no circumstances, for example, can Mason Plumlee be allowed to catch the ball close to the rim. He shoots 75% at the rim and 35% away from it. Plumlee is darn near automatic when allowed to work. Whoever's assigned to him, be it Akil Mitchell or Mike Tobey, can't let him just catch the ball in the paint because then it's over; and then, of course, it's double-team time. Josh Hairston isn't terrible or anything, but Plumlee represents Duke's only real scoring threat down low. He's all they've needed, really.
Duke is also one of the best three-point shooting teams in the country, with Cook, Curry, and Sulaimon all hitting on better than 40%. Tyler Thornton isn't chopped liver in this department either. This team can hurt you from deep. Bad.
Seth Curry, of course, is a guy who's dangerous from anywhere he feels like shooting it. One thing that makes Duke so tough to guard is that Curry's effectiveness doesn't go down as he gets farther away from the rim. He loves to drive then pull up after he's created his space, and he can catch and shoot both inside and outside the arc. Quinn Cook prefers to get to the rim if he can, which he does very well, and he's developed into a nice facilitator. Rasheed Sulaimon, meanwhile, has gotten more productive as the ACC season has worn on. Partly this is because he's taken over for Ryan Kelly as the fourth scorer, but a good freshman will start to figure out the league by mid-February and that's exactly what Sulaimon has done.
Duke's only real weakness is their depth. There's no real PG backup for Cook and there's definitely no backup at center for Plumlee. They average 33, 34 minutes for a reason. The rotation is thin, with four players - Cook, Curry, Plumlee, and Sulaimon - getting as much time as K dares, and the fifth spot being a revolving door that'll be based largely on matchups. Duke doesn't foul much (SURPRISE) or else they'd be in a lot of trouble.
The bottom line: Try and shut down Plumlee and hope their three-balling goes cold. The cold hard numbers:
Maryland: Plumlee 2-for-7, Duke .316 from deep
Miami: Plumlee 5-for-15, Duke .176 from deep
NC State: Plumlee 7-for-10, Duke .300 from deep
Those are their three losses. Only NC State let Plumlee shoot well. Seth Curry was an incredible 0-for-10 against Miami, but getting him some buckets would've only made the score respectable, not given them a win. You've got to force their game outside and hope they're having a bad night.
Alright, well. Maybe it's the matchups. Maybe it's playing at home in front of a sold-out crowd. Maybe it's the scotch. Maybe it's the long streak of playing well - even in losses - that's vaulted UVA's offense up near KenPom's top 30 in the country, which has got to be their highest point ever under Tony Bennett. But I feel good about this. Call me crazy all you like. I know Duke is Duke, and I'll tell you what else: Karl Hess hasn't reffed an ACC game all week, so he's probably gonna be in the house. Just a guess. Another guess: UVA will surprise a few pundits with their offensive output and knock off big bad Duke in front of an ecstatic crowd.
Final score: UVA 70, Duke 66
**Palm's pathological insistence in not considering UVA to even be a tournament contender is one of the most laughable stories of the bracketology season. He had a podcast recently in which he haughtily summed up UVA fans' arguments for the Hoos' tourney-worthiness as "those losses don't matter." Please. I refuse to believe out of all the angry emails he got, not one of them mentioned, say, Wisconsin. But really I told you that story to tell you this one: isn't it kind of enjoyable that we Virginia fans are developing a reputation for being a prickly bunch that will flood your Twittishfeed if you cross us? Last year Mike Scott was left out of a Wooden candidate list (I can't remember whose, Andy Katz's or someone's) and the Mike Scott = Chuck Norris thing was born on the comments section. And then another ESPN writer did the same thing and the original guy tweeted him with something along the lines of "look out dude, Virginia fans are coming." Palm got so much hate mail from UVA fans that he advertised his podcast with "why Virginia fans hate me" and he's not even the first bracketologist to feel the pain; Lunardi, in the past, has also felt the need to go "ok Virginia fans, here is why I dissed your team." The difference was, Lunardi ended up being right, and Palm will end up with egg on his face. At any rate, keep it up, folks.