The No. 4 Blue Devils and the No. 2 Virginia Cavaliers finally crossed paths in Durham this past Saturday in arguably the most anticipated college game of the season to date.
While by no means an instant classic, the battle for ACC supremacy evolved from an early showcase of the Cavs’ dominance into a down-to-the-wire tactical struggle, with UVA holding off the home team for a 65–63 victory. Nothing about the contest itself proved particularly revelatory—the two combatants entered the matchup as deep and gifted teams with a legitimate shot at the Final Four, and the events that transpired over the course of forty minutes did nothing to challenge that impression.
The larger ramifications, however, may be psychological. In managing their first victory at Cameron in twenty-three years, the ascendant Cavaliers demonstrated their ability to thrive on the big stage and proved unflappable in the face of a second half Blue Devils onslaught that occasionally threatened to blow the game open. Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter combined for forty-four points and provided plenty of offensive fireworks against UVA’s stalwart defense, but facing a long bench and competing against the Cavs’ exhausting style of grind-it-out play, the Blue Devils ultimately looked gassed down the stretch. Blueprint in place, the onus will now be on Duke to solve the Cavs should they see each other again in the spring.
Two nights later, the Blue Devils showed no ill effects, bouncing back with an impressive 88–66 throttling of Norte Dame at Cameron. A game Irish team hoped to build upon Mike Brey’s history of success against Duke, but Gary Trent Jr. starred for the Blue Devils with twenty-two points and ten rebounds, and a late 18–0 run made the result academic.
In addition to rebounding from Saturday’s disappointment, perhaps the most important element of the win for Duke involved the re-emergence of senior guard Grayson Allen, at least for one night. Allen, who has taken his periodic disappearing act to troubling extremes at times this season, chipped in with eighteen points and eight rebounds. Along with contributions from little-used Australian import Jack White, the Blue Devils seem to acknowledge the necessity for production outside of the Bagley-Carter-Trent Jr. power trio, which has carried the team of late.
Saturday’s loss was disappointing but hardly diminished the Blue Devils in the eyes of most observers. They remain a top-five team with talent to match anyone in the nation and a coach who knows a thing or two about maximizing his personnel come tournament time. No one will be the least bit surprised to see this team cutting down the nets come April.
Duke lost the battle with UVA, but they may ultimately win the war. In a game decided by a razor-thin margin, the Blue Devils’ imposing front court was frequently dominant, ultimately out-rebounding the Cavs 42–27. When you factor in Duke’s slow start and their struggles from the free-throw line, it’s possible to imagine the outcome turning out differently. As tough and disciplined as Tony Bennett’s Cavs are, it’s possible that their current level of play represents a ceiling relative to UVA’s overall talent. That isn’t even close to true with Duke. After a period of adjustment, Carter and Bagley appear to have formed real chemistry, and Gary Trent Jr. seems to get better by the week.
A Saturday matchup at St. John’s figures to be a well-earned walkover following an emotional handful of days.
Despite Grayson Allen’s strong performance against Notre Dame, he remains in his current incarnation an inconsistent enigma on a roster full of talented scorers. In recent years, we have seen freshman-led teams succumb to the pressure of tournament time. If Duke intends to compete for a national championship, they will eventually have to get their senior leader back into a consistent groove. Look for that to be a principal focus of Coach K as the Blue Devils embark upon a difficult stretch of schedule, which includes two games with UNC, one each with Clemson and Louisville, and two more with the surprisingly nettlesome Virginia Tech.