Yesterday we took a look at what Duke's offense wants to do and how it might be vulnerable. We looked at some ways Virginia might attack that offense. As confident as I am about Virginia's ability to control Duke's offense, I am almost giddy at the prospect of watching the Hoos attack that Duke defense. On this side of the court is where I believe victory will be won.
There you have it: my prediction. I do think the Hoos are going to win the game whether Tre Jones plays or not. The dangers for Virginia are, as I see it, four:
1) Duke has a hot shooting night from the arc. While the Blue Devils are not a good three-point shooting team in general (31.8% for #269), there is always the potential for that outlier game where they just find the range. Cam Reddish has games of 7-13 and 5-8; R.J. Barrett has games of 3-4 and 4-7; Alex O'Connell has gone 3-4 and 4-8; Jack White has gone 4-6; even Zion Williamson has a 3-4 game. Sometimes you can give a team nothing but bad looks from three, and they still hit an uncanny percentage.
2) Duke being able to overcome Virginia's transition defense. Look for the Devils to push everything. When they get going downhill, they can do amazing things. One wrinkle I think would be an intriguing thing to try would be having Kihei Clark head for the ball the second Duke secures it, every time, and try to pick up the ballhandler right away. Kihei guarding Zion in the backcourt is a potential mismatch in our favor, the kind of situation that results in charges or steals.
3) Refereeing. The refs are going to want to keep this one close. If UVA gets the halftime lead and is threatening to pull away, you can count on the game being called very tightly on Virginia's defensive end and not so much on the other end, for at least 4-5 minutes as the refs give Duke a chance to tighten the game. If the refs consistently call Virginia for minimal contact on Duke's drives, and don't reciprocate on the other end, it will be almost impossible to overcome. It would not be the first time the refs gave Duke a win over UVA in Cameron.
4) The Hoos get away from attacking the basket for any reason and just start shooting standstill threes. Whether it is from Duke blocking several shots early, or a lack of calls on drives that allows Duke to be very physical, or Duke switching to a zone, Virginia does in some games give up on getting inside and fall in love with the outside shot. It rarely goes well for them.
As for Tre Jones, if he does not play, Duke has to replace him in the starting lineup with either Alex O'Connell, Jack White, Marques Bolden, or Jordan Goldwire. Only Goldwire is a point guard, but he's not a very good player and would give Virginia a monumental mismatch. Bolden would make Duke very large, because 6-7 R.J. Barrett would be the smallest player in Duke's lineup. O'Connell is the most likely choice, and he gives Duke another shooter. Ballhandling will be an issue, but the biggest vulnerability is on defense. Duke's offense is predicated primarily on the incredible ability of their three NBA lottery picks. As long as they can get the ball in the frontcourt, they are more than happy to run isos and ball screens with those guys and pound the boards. But on defense, Jones makes their perimeter pressure defense work. Without him, the pressure is much less, and a team like Virginia can find mismatches all over the floor. Look for Kihei to get O'Connell on the edge with all five Hoos above the foul line.
In the end, I have serious doubts that Duke can guard Virginia. Tough enough with Jones; without him, I just don't see it. UVA just needs to keep setting screens and moving the ball, and they will end up with the ball in the hands of someone who cannot be guarded by his defender, or with an easy look because Duke failed to rotate effectively.