R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson combined to score 57 points as No. 1 Duke survived an off-night from Cam Reddish to take down No. 4 Virginia, the last remaining unbeaten in college basketball, 72-70.
De’Andre Hunter led Virginia with 18 points while Ty Jerome finished with 14 points, four assists and four boards, the majority of his damage being done in the second half. Duke led 37-32 heading into halftime, cut the lead to 40-39 by the first TV timeout. From that point until the Blue Devils used a 6-0 run to push their lead out to 67-60, the game was a thrilling, one possession battle between two of the best teams in the country.
For me, that was the most important factor on display.
These could very well be the two best teams in college basketball. On a different day — one where Kyle Guy or Braxton Key makes one or two of the handful of wide open threes they had in the second half — Virginia wins this game. At the same time, we can say that if Tre Jones is healthy for the return leg, Duke could go into John Paul Jones Arena and get a win and no one would be surprised.
Speaking of Jones, much was made of the importance of his absence in the buildup to this game, but Duke still managed to find a way to win.
Here are four things to takeaway from the result:
1. ZION WILLIAMSON IS SPECIAL
The likely No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft and the probably National Player of the Year is a great basketball player.
But in all seriousness, he was absolutely unstoppable on Saturday night in Cameron. There is no team in the country that is better than Virginia when it comes to stopping dribble penetration — that is the entire point of the Pack-Line — and Zion was able to get to the rim more or less at will. Virginia tried everything to slow him down, from using future top ten pick De’Andre Hunter, to Mamadi Diakite, to Braxton Key. By the end of the second half, Tony Bennett put Jack Salt on Zion, hoping that it would be more effective using the burly, 7-foot New Zealander to keep Zion from bullying his way to the basket while helping as much as possible.
(I know this is probably a different conversation for a different space, but in all seriousness, Virginia’s entire premise defensively is to force drivers to play with as little space as possible, and Zion got wherever he wanted. In the NBA — with the longer three-point line, shooters all over the floor and more space than anyone knows what to do with — how do you keep him out of the lane?)
With the loss to Syracuse on Monday night, Duke is going to fall out of the top spot in the AP Poll. That’s justified.
But it’s hard for me to wrap my head around the idea that a team with Zion Williamson as the second-option offensively is not the best team in college basketball.
2. THE CHESS MATCH BETWEEN THESE TWO COACHES WAS AMAZING, BUT COACH K WON THIS ROUND
It was fascinating to watch these two coaching geniuses trade haymakers for 40 minutes on Saturday night.
Coach K landed the first blow. Virginia runs the blocker-mover offense, which is more-or-less a continuity offense where three guards (movers) are constantly running off of screens from the two bigs (blockers), and he was able to completely take UVA out of their offense by switching all exchanges, 1-through-5. Tony Bennett said at halftime that no one had done that against them before. Switching off-ball screening actions minimizes their effectiveness, especially when the bigs aren’t good enough to overpower the guards that are switched onto them:
This through Virginia for a loop early on, but they adjusted. This is when Bennett gets on the scorecard for the first time, because he totally scrapped his offense and started doing exactly what Duke does: He ran screen after screen after screen until he got the matchup he wanted — usually, Marques Bolden on Ty Jerome or De’Andre Hunter. Then he would lift the defense, send the big out to set a ball-screen and let the dribbler attack the space in the paint since Duke wasn’t leaving shooters:
They switched to a 2-3 zone for a number of possessions late in the second half, and it got Duke the win, but I do think that it’s important to note than Virginia entered this game as the nation’s seventh-best three-point shooting team and they missed three or four really good looks from three against that Duke zone. If those threes — the shots that Virginia wanted to get, mind you — go down, maybe I’m writing something different here.
And Duke was able to land themselves the two-point win.
(One point that I think is important to add here: One of the things that people love to cite when they say that Tony Bennett will never be able to coach in the NBA is the offense that he runs. Well, in the second half, Virginia essentially ran the same offense that was run for the entirety of the 2018 Western Conference Finals. He simply moved players into screens to force switches into advantageous matchups, then he let his stars go and make a play. Oh, and should I mention that the Portland Trailblazers run the blocker-mover offense? Because they do.)
Anyway, the more important point about the Wahoos is that …
3. … DE’ANDRE HUNTER AND TY JEROME ARE DIFFERENCE-MAKERS
After watching that game and rewatching much of the second half, I am more sold on the idea that this Virginia team is the team that can finally get to the Final Four.
No one is going to defend Virginia this season as well as Duke did on Saturday night. The Blue Devils schemed UVA out of everything they wanted to do offensively, and Virginia still gave Duke a fight in Cameron.
The point here isn’t to celebrate a moral victory — remember, Virginia won in Cameron last year and lost in the first round to UMBC. The point is that Hunter and Jerome are as good as any 1-2 punch in college hoops this side of Duke. They can create outside of the confines of Virginia’s system. They can take games over, as Hunter did for a stretch in the first half and as Jerome did for much of the second half. They are NBA players that are hidden by the slowest pace in the sport.
The point is that the concern people have about Virginia winning in March is that they are susceptible to losing to teams that can take them out of what they want to do. Duke did that, and Virginia came a couple of missed threes away from picking them off in Cameron.
Maybe Virginia is more matchup-proof than we realized.
4. DUKE DEFINITELY MISSED TRE JONES
It’s easy to hide flaws in a roster when the top two picks in the draft are able to put up combined 57 points on 21-for-35 shooting against one of the best defenses in college basketball, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t chinks in the armor.
Part of the reason that Duke had to switch as much as they did on Saturday night, and part of the reason they were eventually forced to go to zone, is that Tre Jones’ defense wasn’t on the floor. Part of the reason that Duke had to play Marques Bolden for 33 minutes despite the fact that he was the guy that Virginia targeted every time they switched was because Tre Jones was on the bench. Part of the reason that Cam Reddish struggled to get things going was because there was no true point guard on the floor to initiate offense.
Duke is better with Tre Jones.
I don’t even think there is a question.
But when you have two dudes that are as good as Zion and RJ are, there are going to be a lot of games where it just doesn’t matter.