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College Basketball Game Preview and Prediction: Duke vs. Virginia

Tyus Jones

Tyus Jones

Strange times are afoot in the ACC.

The Tobacco Road power structure in the league may still command ratings and attention, but it hasn’t yielded a league regular season or tournament championship since 2012.

The reigning champion Virginia is in prime position to extend that drought for another year.

Duke, coming off a loss to Notre Dame, now sits in a tie for sixth in the conference at 4-3 in the league. Meanwhile, Virginia sits alone atop the standings at 7-0 in the conference and 19-0 overall.

Unbalanced scheduling has played a part in conference standings looking a little out of whack compared to the rankings, but the Cavaliers place as the top team in the league is undeniable.

One of two undefeated teams in the country, Virginia is one of the season’s great stories. Despite a lack of McDonald’s All-Americans and NBA Draft lottery talent, Virginia is a Final Four contender that expects to go toe-to-toe against the more heralded Duke team that visits Charlottesville on Saturday evening.

Duke at Virginia

Site: John Paul Jones Arena, Charlottesville, Va.

Time: Saturday, 7 p.m. Eastern

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TV: ESPN

What’s on the line for Duke

The Blue Devils need to re-establish themselves as national contender. Duke is 3-3 since its 14-0 start, leaving the Blue Devils looking awfully vulnerable. Guards at NC State, Miami and Notre Dame have thrived against Duke in the last three weeks, and St. John’s, too, gave Duke trouble for most of Sunday’s game. A team that once looked like it could contend for the national title is suddenly facing a handful of adversity from on-court play to personnel changes. Beating Virginia on the road would immediately re-establish Duke’s bona fides. 

What’s on the line for Virginia

If Virginia can defeat Duke, the Cavaliers would have a legitimate claim as the current power in the ACC. Virginia won the ACC regular season a year ago and defeated Duke for the conference tournament title. Virginia isn’t the draw for the casual fan like Duke, North Carolina, Louisville and Syracuse, but it’s tough to argue against a team that keeps winning. During the last two seasons, Virginia is 23-2 in the ACC with the only losses coming on the road in overtime to Maryland and on the road by four against Duke.

You’ll tune in to watch: How Duke attacks Virginia’s defense

Virginia and Kentucky are an easy 1-2 as the best defensive teams in the country. The Cavaliers do their work by giving opponents precious few possessions and few great shots. Virginia is second in the nation in defensive field goal percentage from two-point range (26.9 percent) and effective field goal rate. And on top of that, Virginia keeps teams off the offensive glass. So the question for Duke is how to score on the pack-line defense. Getting the ball to Jahlil Okafor in the post may be tough, even for a freshman point guard as outstanding Tyus Jones. Duke will need Quinn Cook (39.6 percent from 3) and Justise Winslow, who may be busting out of his slump, to knock down jumpers.

Pivotal player: Justin Anderson, Virginia

Anderson may end up the ACC player of the year, a remarkable feat considering he averages only 13.9 points per game. Here’s why: he’s ridiculously efficient and he’s Virginia’s MVP. Anderson is shooting 48.4 percent from 2-point range and 51.9 percent from 3 (on 81 attempts). And only a week after an aberrant 0-of-8 day from the floor against Boston College, Anderson carried the Cavs late in the second half of the come-from-behind win over Virginia Tech on Sunday.

Biggest question: What impact will Rasheed Sulaimon’s dismissal have?

Dismissals of key players at this stage of the season are no small matter. Rahseed Sulaimon’s role had dwindled over the years, but his 7.5 points per game and defense isn’t a negligible loss for the Blue Devils. Krzyzewski, by coach-dismissing-a-player standards, didn’t mince words. Sulaimon “repeatedly struggled” to live up to the standards of the program. His performance indicates Duke will miss him, but the comments indicate he may have been a detriment to chemistry. What will we see Saturday?

Predictions:

David Fox: Duke 65-62

Mitch Light: Virginia 68-60

Jake Rose: Virginia 67-61