Virginia Tech picked up a potential signature victory as they took advantage of Grayson Allen’s suspension and ran past No. 5 Duke for a 89-75 home ACC win.
The Hokies jumped out to a big early lead that turned into 47-31 by halftime as they were never seriously threatened in the second half. The Blue Devils were playing without Allen — the junior Player of the Year candidate who was suspended indefinitely following his third tripping incident in a win over Elon — for the first time and the 10-day layoff, a tough road game and the conference opener all combined for an ugly effort.
Here are four things we learned from this game.
1. Duke still has to figure out its defense: The biggest takeaway from this game is that Duke’s defense needs to improve a lot in order from them to win the national championship. While Duke’s offense suffered without Grayson Allen, its defense was completely atrocious in allowing Virginia Tech looks from all over the floor.
Perimeter defenders were getting blown by and big men weren’t protecting at the rim — a total failure that led to Virginia Tech shooting 55 percent from the field and 61 percent from three-point range.
Allen’s return to the lineup should obviously help with some of the perimeter problems but the bigger issue here is Duke’s glaring lack of a rim protector. Amile Jefferson is more of a rebounder and best suited with a big man next to him while freshmen like Marques Bolden and Harry Giles are just returning from injury. Bolden can wall up and be a presence, but he’s never been noted as a plus shot blocker, while Giles is at his best as a rebounder.
We can’t expect Duke to just develop a rim protector overnight — although that can improve a bit — but they can get better at preventing guards from just coasting to the bucket. And this entire Duke team can also stand to be more physical on the defensive end.
2. Virginia Tech picked up a signature victory: Buzz Williams didn’t exactly put his team through a rigorous non-conference schedule leading up to this point, but it doesn’t matter now, as the Hokies have a win over a potential No. 1 seed.
While Virginia Tech had only a road win at Michigan to show for its non-conference schedule, this win should certainly give the Hokies a lot of momentum. The key for this team securing a NCAA tournament bid could come in the next few games. If Virginia Tech is able to split its next four games (at N.C. State, at Florida State, Syracuse, Notre Dame) then it will be off to a solid start heading into a winnable home game against Georgia Tech.
You wouldn’t think of Blacksburg as a place you wouldn’t want to play but the Hokies have knocked off three top-10 opponents at home over the last calendar year.
3. Duke’s freshmen are still adjusting to the college game: We heard so much about Duke’s freshmen class entering this season and they’re finally all seeing the floor as we begin conference play (even seldom-talked-about forward Jack White got minutes for Duke in the Virginia Tech loss…).
But this talented group still has adjustments to make as we enter the tough part of the schedule. After the hot start, guard Frank Jackson was only 3-for-9 from the field for six points in the Virginia Tech loss while Jayson Tatum (18 points, seven rebounds) picked it up after a slow shooting start.
Harry Giles showed some flashes in finishing with four points and six rebounds (the offensive putback, in particular, was a classic Giles play when he was healthy as he has such a natural gift of timing on offensive putbacks) but he doesn’t have the wind or confidence to be relied on yet.
Marques Bolden contributed three rebounds off the bench and didn’t provide any rim protection when Duke desperately needed some.
Tatum and Jackson will be aided by Allen’s return and Giles and Bolden will get more comfortable as they get more healthy and active but this Duke team is still going to need a lot from its veterans to make a title run.
4. Virginia Tech’s balance is tremendous: The Hokies don’t have one-and-done, five-star prospects or a lot of pro prospects. They’re not going to get the hype of certain teams because their own conference is littered with teams that have both.
But the Hokies are filled with confidence and aggressive players who perfectly embody what Buzz Williams likes out of his teams. Williams has multiple guards who can attack and make plays in Seth Allen, Justin Robinson and Justin Bibbs while Chris Clarke has become a versatile double-double threat who is one of the toughest players in the ACC. Ahmed Hill is a valuable slasher while Zach LeDay is underrated on the interior.
I just named six talented players for the Hokies and any of those guys can lead them to victory. If all six of them finish in double-figures — as the Hokies did in the win against Duke — that’s when Virginia Tech can hang with any team in the country. This team is going to get plenty of battles in the ACC and they’ll be equipped to handle most of them because of this team’s unique toughness and balance.