Virginia enters Saturday’s game against Duke as one of the best college basketball programs in the country.
The Cavaliers won the national championship a season ago. Despite losing three players to the NBA Draft, the Cavaliers have won 20 games this season. Wednesday’s win over Virginia Tech gave UVa (20-7, 12-5 ACC) its ninth consecutive 20-win season.
Under Tony Bennett, Virginia sits among the college basketball elite. Bennett holds a winning percentage of .500 or above against every ACC team — except Duke.
Mike Krzyzewski and the Blue Devils are the one team to have Bennett’s number. The 11th-year Virginia head coach is 3-11 against Duke, including a three-game losing streak in Charlottesville. Last season UVa lost three games, two of those losses came against the Blue Devils.
Duke rolls into town Saturday fresh off a disappointing loss to a subpar Wake Forest team. The Blue Devils squandered a nine-point lead in the final 1:21 and lost 113-101 in double overtime. Even with the loss to the Demon Deacons, Duke finds itself in the ACC title hunt and in third in the conference standings. Virginia sits a game behind Duke in fourth place.
To the outside, Saturday’s game means plenty to UVa. It’s a Saturday showcase game on ESPN and a win moves the Cavaliers to third in the ACC. With a game left against Louisville, the Cavaliers could put themselves in a tie for second in the ACC when the season concludes. Two Florida State losses could propel the Cavaliers into a share of the league’s regular-season title.
A win over Duke also all but guarantees UVa a spot in the NCAA Tournament. Losing out could put the Cavaliers in jeopardy of missing the Big Dance.
Beating Duke — a team that has dominated the series between the two teams — would be important for numerous reasons.
One of those reasons is simply that the game comes against Duke. The Blue Devils hold a special place in hearts of many college basketball fans as one of the most disliked programs in the country. Duke wins often. The Blue Devils also have a knack for churning out players such as Christian Laettner and Grayson Allen who generate emotional responses from fans for the way they play the game.
In each of the past three home games with Duke, more than 14,500 people have crammed into John Paul Jones Arena. UVa fans love when the Blue Devils come to town, as all of those games brought in at least 300 more people than the average home attendance number that season.
Inside the Virginia locker room, however, Saturday’s game is just that — another game.
“Yeah, I guess,” freshman Casey Morsell said Wednesday when asked if he felt extra excitement for Saturday’s game. “Every game is its own opportunity. Duke is a great team, but we know they’re gonna be hungry, especially after [losing to Wake Forest]. We just gotta stay focused and be ready to play.”
Virginia fully expects a motivated Duke team. The last time the Blue Devils played after a loss, they blew out Virginia Tech 88-64 in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
“Duke’s obviously very good,” Bennett said after Virginia’s win over Virginia Tech on Wednesday. “They lost a heartbreaker last night, so they’ll come in I’m sure focused and ready to play and we’ve got to be the same.”
Becoming the second team to beat Duke in as many games is far from impossible, though. Duke dropped back-to-back ACC games earlier this season. The Blue Devils fell to Clemson on a Tuesday in January before losing to Louisville a few days later. That marked the first time Duke dropped consecutive ACC games since the 2016-17 season.
While beating the Blue Devils one game after they come off a loss isn’t easy, Wake Forest showed a potential path to take down Duke. Three Duke frontcourt players, including ACC Player of the Year candidate Vernon Carey Jr., fouled out. The Demon Deacons took advantage, as Wake Forest guard Brandon Childress started to find an offensive rhythm with the paint less crowded.
“Our big men fouled out, so we had to switch our defense,” Duke guard Tre Jones said. “He wasn’t doing anything the entire game until that point.”
When Carey Jr. is on the floor, he’s dynamic. The freshman averages 17.6 points and 8.8 rebounds per game despite only averaging 24.6 minutes per contest. Combined with Jones, who averages 16.1 points and 6.5 assists per game, the Blue Devils boast a stellar inside-outside combination.
Wake Forest showed what can happen with Carey Jr. out of the game.
With Mamadi Diakite and Jay Huff more than capable of drawing fouls in bunches, attacking Carey Jr. in the paint could yield positive results for the Cavaliers.
“It’s gonna be his best against my best,” Diakite said. “I like good matchups. We’ll see on Saturday.”
Internally the game may feel like a typical ACC contest. Between the home atmosphere, the ACC stakes and the series history, however, Saturday’s game means about as much as any UVa game has all season, whether the players willingly admit it or not.