No. 20 Virginia Tech knocks off No. 3 Duke as Blue Devil defense struggles without Zion

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Virginia Tech scored an impressive victory over No. 3 Duke on Tuesday night as the No. 20 Hokies held off a late charge for a 77-72 ACC home win. The win for Virginia Tech is a massive one for its NCAA tournament profile while the loss for the Blue Devils means they’re no longer tied with Virginia and North Carolina atop the ACC standings.

The loss hurts Duke from an ACC perspective, but the nation has been mostly focused on the health and status of Blue Devil freshman star Zion Williamson — who missed Tuesday’s game with the knee sprain suffered last week against North Carolina.

Without Williamson for, essentially, the third straight game, Duke has been forced to make adjustments on both ends of the floor. The offensive adjustments have been well-documented. Fellow freshmen R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish are now carrying a gigantic offensive workload without Zion in the lineup. Duke’s other role players have struggled to step up and hit shots. That even prompted the Blue Devils to burn freshman Joey Baker’s redshirt to see if he could help against the Syracuse zone on Saturday.

But while the offense has needed to make adjustments without Williamson, it’s been Duke’s defense that has arguably suffered more without the frontrunner for National Player of the Year.

On Tuesday, Duke had its worst defensive performance of the season, as they gave up 77 points on 63 possessions — which amounts to 1.222 points per possession. For perspective, Duke’s previous worst defensive game of the season came against Gonzaga (on the softest of rims on the planet) at the Maui Invitational — and that game was at 1.208 points per possession.

And Virginia Tech hasn’t exactly been an offensive juggernaut without senior point guard Justin Robinson. The Hokies are a very respectable No. 13 in adjusted offensive efficiency on KenPom. But they’ve also had to scrap and claw without Robinson as backup floor general Wabissa Bede is more of a defensive-minded player. A team that plays dreadfully slow put up 77 points on Duke — a number Virginia Tech hasn’t reached since Robinson went down with injury on Jan. 30.

Without Williamson’s defensive presence on the floor, Duke has particularly struggled to force steals — which they were doing at a nation-leading 13.7 percent before the North Carolina game. Against Syracuse, the Blue Devils only mustered two steals. In the loss to Virginia Tech, that number dropped to only one. For a team averaging over 10 steals per game entering Tuesday, that’s a gigantic drop, and it’s added even more pressure on Duke’s half-court offense to perform without Williamson.

The unique shot-blocking presence of Williamson has also been sorely missed. Virginia Tech big man Kerry Blackshear Jr. — one of the ACC’s hottest players who the Hokies should be playing through on every possession — dominated the Blue Devil bigs. As Blackshear (23 points, 10 rebounds, 7-for-11 shooting) was able to take his time and establish post position, Duke bigs had no chance of stopping him one-on-one.

Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier both did a respectable job of trying to establish position to contain Blackshear one-on-one. But the missing threat of Williamson’s weakside shot-blocking was noticeable in this one. Duke’s double-teams were slow to react and Blackshear was able to take long periods of time establishing position and going to work.¬†Bolden becomes Duke’s only rim protector without Williamson in the lineup, and he can only do so much on his own if a player like Blackshear can continually get that comfortable.

The freakish athleticism of Williamson allows him to play as a sort of free safety when Duke is on defense, as he can cover ground and swallow up shots as well as anyone in the country. Just ask De’Andre Hunter. But without Williamson in the lineup, Duke’s turnover-producing defense hasn’t shown an ability to generate the takeaways that lead to easy buckets.

If Duke wants to be in the national title picture, they desperately need a healthy Williamson to re-enter the lineup so that they can get back to previous levels on both ends of the floor. Everyone loves to focus on the dunks and the offensive highlights, but Williamson’s impact is felt all over the floor for Duke when he’s out.