CHARLOTTESVILLE — Here’s Virginia against Duke: 0-2. And here’s Virginia against the rest of the country: 20-0.
The second week of February is not the time to make definitive conclusions about college basketball teams, and certainly no one who filtered out of John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday night — including none other than LeBron James, whom we will get to in a moment — thought the Blue Devils’ 81-71 victory over the Cavaliers means Virginia has some sort of mental block against Duke.
What it was: a blistering shooting performance by a Duke team not known for its shooting, a fractious defensive performance by a Virginia team known for defensive strangulation and, for the second time in three weeks, the best hoops game on the schedule.
“As good as the game was in Durham,” Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski said, thinking back to his team’s 72-70 win Jan. 19, “this was better.”
And he sighed. In truth, this wasn’t a classic. Duke scored the first eight points, led by 14 and never trailed. But these wins over Virginia, even for the coach with more victories than anyone in the history of men’s college basketball, are just plain draining.
“Games against great teams do that,” Krzyzewski said.
We have reached the point in the Duke-Virginia series, after 172 meetings, at which it is worthy of observation by the sport’s most immense figures. It made sense that Ralph Sampson (Virginia ’83) and Grant Hill (Duke ’94) would find their way to John Paul Jones Arena to watch their alma maters. But there, sitting on the baseline a few minutes into the game, was none other than James, who brought Los Angeles Lakers sidekick Rajon Rondo.
Night off before the Lakers play in Philadelphia on Sunday? Forget dinner and a movie. Jet to Charlottesville for the best matchup on the calendar this weekend — regardless of level. During the day Saturday, James texted Krzyzewski, his coach on both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic teams that won gold medals, that he might show up.
“He’s welcome to come around anytime,” Krzyzewski said.
He came because Duke-Virginia is an event. There’s every reason to believe these two teams could face each other in the ACC tournament next month in Charlotte. Two losses don’t give the Cavaliers, ranked third in the country, reason to believe the result couldn’t be different then.
“The formula doesn’t change,” Virginia Coach Tony Bennett said. Read clearly: If the Cavs take care of themselves, they can beat Duke. Virginia turned the ball over 14 times. The Cavs didn’t close out on shooters crisply enough and gave up at least 80 points in a game that ended in regulation for the first time since December 2013.
“You can’t beat a team like Duke,” Bennett said, “. . . without playing a sounder, cleaner game.”
They have that ability, in part, because Bennett is their coach. Krzyzewski’s postgame exhaustion Saturday mimicked his reaction to the victory last month in Durham. The Cavaliers tax you in a way that makes you grateful for every bucket, appreciative of every win.
“There’s not a moment during the game that you take a break,” Krzyzewski said. “And you always know that whatever they just did, they might do something different. As physically draining as it is for the players, they have to be amazingly mental. . . . And me, too. I’m getting old, and I’d rather not go through all that.”
Going through it Saturday meant watching Virginia’s notoriously suffocating defense jam the lane even more. Let ’em shoot it because they can’t. Duke ranks 317th — that’s right, 317th — in the nation in three-point shooting, wedged directly between Texas Rio Grande Valley and Jacksonville State. In the previous meeting, the Cavaliers forced misses on 15 of Duke’s 17 threes. The Cavs have the top-ranked defense in the nation against three-pointers.
Twelve minutes in, Duke had made 7 of 8. For the game, the Blue Devils shot 13 for 21 from behind the arc and 13 for 24 from inside it.
“When you hit 13 threes,” Virginia guard Kyle Guy said, “you’re going to be hard to beat.”
And there’s your best analysis. Virginia can beat Duke. It just hasn’t.
How, between now and March, might that change?
“Keep trying to tighten up,” Bennett said. “Just try to be as sound as you can.”
You don’t go 51-5 — Virginia’s record the past two seasons — without having an understanding of what “sound” means. The Cavaliers also have a strong self-awareness. Guy, who joins De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome as Virginia’s most important offensive players, berated himself afterward for what he considered an “unacceptable” start to his evening.
“It was one of my poorer performances in the first 15 minutes,” he said.
That kind of realistic view of what happened — the Cavaliers’ best players didn’t execute at their best — is only helpful. They weren’t jobbed by the officials. They didn’t catch bad breaks. Duke just beat them.
What’s important now is the fallout. There’s not likely to be one.
“I think we’re a team that doesn’t get fazed very easily,” Guy said.
They can’t, not now. Monday brings a game at No. 8 North Carolina.
“Get yourself ready,” Bennett said. “Grow from this the little bit we can.”
With 75 seconds left Saturday night and Duke at the line for two in a series of icing free throws, James and his crew got up from their seats and headed for the exits. The outcome had been decided. The appointment viewing was over.
But don’t allow Saturday night to lead to any sweeping statements about what the Cavaliers are or who they can become. They don’t faze easily. They understand who they are and what they need to work on. And while Duke has the two wins and the brighter “SportsCenter”-style stars, basketball royalty understands that when you show up in Charlottesville, you’re going to be flat worn out when you leave.