To be clear, whatever happens Saturday in Durham, North Carolina, won’t determine the fate of Virginia’s season. But starting at 6 p.m., Cameron Indoor Stadium will feel like the center of the college basketball universe.
Duke is ranked No. 1 in the AP Top 25 poll. Virginia sits atop the USA Today coaches poll. The Cavaliers are eager to swipe the national spotlight from one of their biggest rivals; the Blue Devils are bent on justifying the buzz surrounding them.
Here are four storylines to watch for in perhaps the sport’s biggest game of the season so far.
1. Which team will control the pace?
Virginia’s proclivity for slowing things down is no secret. The Cavaliers have long aimed to lull their opponents to sleep, squeezing each possession for all its worth. This season has been no different, with Coach Tony Bennett’s team entering the Duke game ranking last in the nation in adjusted tempo (60.6 possessions per 40 minutes), per KenPom.com.
The Blue Devils like to run. Zion Williamson, for one, has been known to sometimes run at defenders, and Duke ranks eighth in the country in adjusted tempo (75.5 possessions per 40 minutes). The central struggle of the game will be that of the pace, and whichever team controls it will have a better shot at victory.
2. Who will defend Zion Williamson?
The Cavaliers own the nation’s second-best adjusted defensive efficiency (85.4 points allowed per 100 possessions), and the team is coming off an 81-59 shellacking of No. 9 Virginia Tech. It was the Hokies’ second-lowest scoring output of the season.
Virginia, though, has not seen anyone like Williamson. The 6-foot-7, 285-pound freshman has steamrolled through the sport in the first 16 games of his college career, averaging 21.2 points, 9.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists.
Defenders have struggled to defend against his combination of speed, strength and athleticism. But he has yet to play a defense like the Pack Line.
Virginia will likely put pressure on Williamson in the post, throwing two defenders on him often. The Cavaliers would prefer to keep Williamson out of the paint — he’s shooting 27 percent from long range — but it remains to be seen if they have the personnel to do so.
3. How will Tony Bennett manage his frontcourt?
Bennett has prioritized defense over offense at center this season, starting Jack Salt and giving Jay Huff inconsistent minutes. Huff, though, earned some first-half playing time in the win over Virginia Tech, and the Durham native’s offensive skill set might be needed against a Duke squad averaging an ACC-leading 90.3 points per game.
Bennett will likely start Salt alongside forward Mamadi Diakite, with De’Andre Hunter at small forward. The trio will get the first crack at defending Williamson, but if one gets in foul trouble, Bennett might call on the 7-foot-1 Huff.
4. Who will take the reins for Virginia on offense?
Ty Jerome might be the obvious answer. The guard has been known to deliver in clutch moments over the years, including his game-tying 3-pointer in the team’s 57-49 win over VCU on Dec. 9. The junior then registered 12 points and seven assists in the first half Tuesday as Virginia raced to a 22-point halftime lead.
But Kyle Guy also raises his play in big games. And the junior guard has been an object of derision for some Blue Devils fans. In a tweet promoting the gofundme.com fundraising page to get former UMBC guard K.J. Maura to Saturday’s game, a Duke fan account wrote, “Let’s make Kyle Guy weep.”
Then there’s Hunter. The redshirt sophomore has been lauded as a potential lottery selection in the 2019 NBA Draft, and a big game against the Blue Devils can only help his stock.