The Virginia men’s basketball team climbed to No. 16 in the Associated Press top 25 poll released Monday. In addition to garnering some national attention for their 14-1 start, the Cavaliers also have impressed Mike Krzyzewski, whose Duke Blue Devils will host Virginia on Thursday.
Duke (13-2) is ranked No. 8 in the latest AP poll and is coming off a lackluster two-game road trip in which it lost at Temple and won unconvincingly at Georgia Tech. The Cavaliers may not be blowing opponents away with their offensive prowess, but their defensive efficiency in Coach Tony Bennett’s third season at the helm has caught Krzyzewski’s eye.
“They know what they’re doing — not just individually, but collectively — on every exchange,” Krzyzewski said Monday during his segment of the ACC coaches’ teleconference. “I think they’re ahead of most teams in our league right now in that regard. We’re not where they are as far as being instinctively reactive. . . . Hopefully we’ll come closer to that by Thursday.”
Duke is giving up an ACC-worst 69.4 points per game and is allowing opponents to shoot an ACC-high 44.3 percent from the field.
Conversely, the Blue Devils own one of the most potent offenses in the conference. They are averaging 82.1 points per game and are making 49.8 percent of their field goal attempts. Only seven teams in the nation have shot more accurately from three-point range this season than Duke (41.7 percent).
In Krzyzewski’s view, it all comes down to possessions. With the way his current Blue Devils squad is constructed, they favor an up-tempo, high-possession game. Virginia operates on the opposite end of the spectrum. Duke has averaged 70.7 possessions per game (third-highest in the ACC) while the Cavaliers are averaging an ACC-low 61.3 possessions per game.
“The main thing is they understand their jobs, and they’re playing together,” Krzyzewski said of Virginia’s players. “They have each other’s backs. It’s tough to get into the lane on them. They try to take away the post with the double team on the low post all the time. The double team is one thing, but what the other three guys are doing . . . is as that trap goes there, the other three react instinctively to where they’re supposed to be.”
During last season’s Duke-Virginia matchup in Durham, the Cavaliers held a nine-point lead with just more than 16 minutes to play. Virginia ended up losing, 76-60. But back then, forward Mike Scott was out because of an ankle injury and guard Sammy Zeglinski was not yet back to full strength following offseason knee surgery.
Scott and Zeglinski are fifth-year seniors this season and, along with senior center Assane Sene and junior guard Jontel Evans, give Virginia four starters with three years of experience in Bennett’s defensive system. Krzyzewski said that maturity in knowing how to execute Bennett’s defensive scheme is starting to show.
Virginia is allowing fewer points per game (50.5) than all but one team in the nation and is allowing opponents to shoot 38 percent from the field, which ranks third in the ACC.
But the Cavaliers also are allowing opponents to tally just 6.7 assists per game. No team in the nation has been better this season at limiting opposing assists than Virginia, and Krzyzewski finds that significant, as well.
“There are many different ways to play defense,” Krzyzewski said. “The way they play it is really a beautiful way to play defense. It doesn’t force as many turnovers, but you don’t get many assists and you don’t get many second shots. It’s tough to get into the lane. You’ve got to shoot well against them, and you’ve got to defend them.”