Among the many great things that our games offer us, one of the best is a matchup of opposing strengths. It could be a dominating pitcher facing a prolific lineup, an elite quarterback taking on a stingy pass defense, or a star running back faced with a stout run defense. Maybe it’s a dominant goal-scorer against a stone wall goaltender. Or maybe it’s what we will be treated to on Saturday afternoon in Durham, North Carolina when No. 4 Duke and its high-flying offense hosts No. 2 Virginia and its insanely parsimonious defense. Let’s set the scene.
The Blue Devils average 91.7 points per game, giving them the number one scoring offense in the country. Duke is ranked second in offensive efficiency by KenPom. The Blue Devils shoot 51% from the floor, good for 5th in the nation, and average 1.245 points per possession, also the best in the country.
Ok, so Duke’s offense is really good statistically. But it can probably be limited if you take away for or two key players, right? Wrong. Five Blue Devils score in double figures. Of those five, all of them have scored 20 points at least once, while three of them have surpassed 30 points at least once. Freshman stud Marvin Bagley, the team’s leading scorer, has scored 30+ five times. Try to take away one, or two or three, options away from Duke and there are two or three more players ready to step in and drop buckets all over you.
On December 5, Duke dropped 124 points on St. Francis. This seems like an appropriate time to remind you that college basketball games are 40 minutes long.
The Cavaliers surrender a paltry 51.6 points per game, the best scoring defense in the country. They boast the number one ranked defensive efficiency, giving up 81.6 points per 100 possessions. The next best team, Cincinnati, gives up 84.4 points per 100 possessions. Opponents make just 36.4% of their shots against Virginia. The Cavaliers don’t just have the best defense in college basketball, they have it by a fairly wide margin.
On Tuesday, Virginia held No. 18 Clemson to 36 points. The Tigers scored a total of 13 points in the second half. Just think about that for a minute. It wasn’t the first time this Virginia team has held an opponent under 40 points, as Wisconsin got just 37. 10 of Virginia’s 20 opponents this season have failed to score 50. No team has cracked the 70-point mark on the Cavaliers, as the 67 they gave up to VCU is the current season-high.
What’s At Stake?
Most immediately, an inside track to the regular-season ACC title. Virginia already holds a two-game advantage over the Blue Devils, who suffered two surprising losses to Boston College and N.C. State. It feels like a three-game deficit would be tough to overcome for Duke. Virginia already has games against Clemson and North Carolina out of the way, with Florida State, Miami, and two with Louisville as the biggest tests remaining on the schedule. Meanwhile, Duke still has two with North Carolina, plus Clemson and Louisville. A Virginia win puts the Cavaliers in the driver’s seat, while a Duke win creates much more uncertainty at the top of the ACC.
Down the road, this game could have major implications on Selection Sunday. According to ESPN’s BPI, a Virginia win gives it a 96% chance of securing a No. 1 seed. That number drops to 87% with a loss. For Duke, a win creates an 65% shot at a top seed, with just a 38% chance with a loss.
Something’s Got To Give
Duke can blitz opponents, building leads that feel insurmountable with a relentless barrage of made baskets coming from all over the court. At times it can feel that each made basket by Duke is worth five points, as the opposing team thinks it is hanging with the Blue Devils by scoring on it’s less-than-sturdy defense, only to look up and find itself down 10+ points. Every empty possession against Duke can feel like a game-changing development.
Virginia, on the other hand, grinds opponents into dust. Everything a team does against Virginia offensively is hard work, with nary a good shot appearing as a reward for the effort. The Cavaliers suffocate the opposition under an avalanche of steals and turnovers. They slow the game to a snail’s pace, increasing the importance of each individual possession, then proceed to make each and every one of those possessions a war. In a game where the object is to put the ball in the basket, it’s easy to understand the frustration when a team makes it so ridiculously difficult to achieve that objective.
Each in their own way, both Duke and Virginia have the ability to crush their opponent’s confidence, destroy their will to play, to make them want to be anywhere but right here, right now, playing in this particular game. To embarrass them. To seemingly take their souls.
On Saturday, something has to give. One of these teams is going to leave with its pride, its soul, and a win. One team’s strength is going to overcome the other’s. And it will be fascinating to see which one it will be.
Josh Naso aka The Silver Fox has a love for all things sports that borders on disorder. Here, he aims to share his thoughts on and passion for those sports with you.