Virginia sophomore forward Akil Mitchell was 3 years old in January 1995, so forgive him for not remembering the last time the Cavaliers claimed victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the storied home of Duke basketball.
Back then, Cory Alexander was a star point guard on a Virginia squad en route to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, Tony Bennett was in his final season as an NBA player, Mike Krzyzewski had back problems that kept him from coaching the game and Boyz II Men topped the Billboard chart with “On Bended Knee.”
That was 17 years and 14 Virginia losses at Cameron ago. A lot has changed in the interim, but it remains true that Duke is tough to beat on its own court. The Blue Devils will ride a 43-game home winning streak — the second-longest active streak in the NCAA — into Thursday night’s game against the Cavaliers.
This year, though, Virginia (14-1, 1-0 ACC) is not considered to be overwhelmingly outmatched. The Cavaliers are experienced and confident and ranked No. 16 in the nation. That Duke (13-2, 1-0) is ranked No. 8 concerns them, but not to the same degree it did in seasons past.
“We’re not going there thinking we’re the underdog,” fifth-year senior forward Mike Scott said. “We’re going there to try to get a win.”
Scott was 7 and living in Oceanside, Calif., in 1995. He can’t recall Virginia’s double-overtime win on Jan. 14 of that year, either.
Alexander can. He didn’t score until less than 10 minutes remained in regulation that night. At one point, as Alexander was walking to the bench, Virginia Coach Jeff Jones asked the redshirt junior whether he ever was going to show up. Alexander finished with 22 points and helped the Cavaliers erase a 23-point, second-half deficit. Virginia won, 91-88.
Two things, Alexander said, buoyed the Cavaliers entering that game: They were assured of their capabilities (“Honestly, we kind of expected just to show up and win,” he said.), and they had defeated Duke on the road two years earlier, so “we weren’t fazed by the whole Cameron thing.”
None of Virginia’s current players have succeeded at Duke, but most of them at least are familiar with Cameron. Scott, fifth-year senior guard Sammy Zeglinski and senior center Assane Sene — all starters — each has played there twice before. Mitchell, junior guard Jontel Evans and sophomore guard Joe Harris each logged at least 22 minutes during the Cavaliers’ 76-60 loss at Duke last season.
“I gained a lot of confidence out of that experience,” said Mitchell, a North Carolina native. “Being in the fire at Cameron Indoor, it gets no better than that.”
Virginia’s players also have grown more ingrained in the principles of the pack-line defense preached by Bennett, who is in his third year as the Cavaliers’ coach. This season, Virginia has limited opponents’ points and possessions more effectively than nearly every other team in the country.
“They know what they’re doing, not just individually, but collectively, on every exchange,” Krzyzewski said. “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.”
During Virginia’s 52-51 win Saturday against Miami, the Cavaliers held the Hurricanes to 35.3 percent shooting in large part because, as Mitchell said, “we were in the right spot [defensively] without having to think about it and kind of saved that split-second that’s really costly at this level.”
Last season — during which Miami defeated Virginia twice in overtime — the Cavaliers struggled to handle Miami’s ball screens because they weren’t ready to slide over and provide help defense. Consequently, Mitchell said, the Hurricanes too often took uncontested jump shots.
On Saturday, Virginia’s off-defenders were in position to fill gaps off of Miami’s ball screens, which translated to fewer outlet passes and more contested shots.
“This year’s team kind of pulls it together, whereas last year’s team kind of separated,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s one of the reasons we lost some close games last year was because we kind of fractured apart at the end of tight games when the other team made a run. This year, we can withstand their runs a lot better.”
Virginia held a nine-point lead with 16 minutes to play last season at Duke before the Blue Devils went on a run and won by 16. To break their 17-year drought at Cameron, the Cavaliers’ defense and maturity must be stable enough to avoid another second-half meltdown.
For the first time in a while, that’s viewed as a viable possibility.
“I definitely look at this as a great opportunity for [Virginia] to go in there and get a win against, of course, a very good Duke team,” said Alexander, who now works as a college basketball television analyst. “It’s not going to be easy, but . . . I think they have enough experience and enough confidence in each other to be able to go in there and definitely compete and have an opportunity to get a win.”