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Virginia Just Became the Team to Beat in the ACC

After topping Duke, the Hoos look primed for a deep run in March. The Devils, though, have some work to do.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

No one on the floor at Cameron Indoor Stadium remembers the last time Virginia beat Duke there. That’s because none of them were born when it happened.

The second-ranked Cavaliers knocked off the fourth-ranked Blue Devils 65-63 on Saturday, winning in Cameron for the first time since Bill Clinton’s first term thanks to a routine display of suffocating defense and careful, methodical scoring. Unranked entering the season, Virginia now sits at 20-1, its only loss coming on the road against West Virginia in early December. North Carolina lost earlier Saturday, which means two Tobacco Road giants fell at home on the same day for the first time since February 21, 1973.

The Hoos overcame another 30-point double-double from freshman phenom Marvin Bagley III despite shooting just under 40 percent from the field and being outrebounded by 13. Virginia guard Kyle Guy scored a team-high 17 points and the Cavaliers forced 16 Duke turnovers. It was a typical Virginia basketball experience.

Virginia plays at the slowest pace in the country, draining the shot clock on offense and smothering opponents with lockdown defense. No matter how much a team presses or how fast they try to push, they’ll end up running fewer possessions than they would against anyone else. Head coach Tony Bennett’s system relies on a simple premise: No one who challenges them will possibly be able to score as efficiently as they will. Fewer possessions means fewer points, and against most teams, the bet pays off. Virginia isn’t as talented as the majority of its contemporaries atop the poll, but as it showed against Duke, it has the system to overcome that disparity. The Hoos entered Cameron Indoor Stadium with the top-rated defense in the country, per KenPom, and managed to hold the nation’s top-scoring offense to just 63 points. Duke hadn’t scored less than 80 since November.

Despite its offensive shortcomings, Duke seemed destined to steal another late-game victory, much like it did this season against Texas, Florida, Florida State, and Miami. Although the the Blue Devils trailed by 13 early in the second half, a comeback against Virginia wasn’t unexpected, especially considering Duke’s recent history against the Hoos. Almost three years ago to the day, no. 4 Duke overcame a double-digit deficit on the road against no. 2 Virginia in a game that kick-started its run to the 2015 national championship. A year later, they stole a win at home thanks to a Grayson Allen buzzer-beater that probably should have been called off for traveling. So when the Devils tore off a 7-0 run early in the second period to cut the lead to six, it felt like a matter of time before they put the game out of reach.

But although they managed to trade the lead a handful of times, they were never able to pull away. A combination of sloppy play and poor outside shooting—Duke didn’t sink its first basket from outside the paint before a Gary Trent Jr. jumper with just over 15 minutes to play—doomed them. It was another example of erratic play that could foreshadow an early exit in March.

Few teams rely on freshmen as heavily as the Blue Devils. Only one consistent contributor, Grayson Allen, called Durham home before the fall. Star recruits aren’t often known for playing strong defense, and while they have a penchant for scoring, that occasionally isn’t enough. Add in one of the worst shooting performances of Allen’s career—he didn’t hit his first basket until just under 12 minutes remained and finished with five points on 2-of-8 shooting—and it makes sense that Duke couldn’t overcome the Hoos.

“I was a freshman once,” Guy said after the game, “and you’re not really prepared for this type of pressure that we put on the ball and our defense.”

Where the two teams go from here will define their seasons. On Friday, my Ringer colleague Mark Titus wrote that if Duke planned on mirroring the 2015 team’s path to the national championship, its contest against Virginia would serve as the tipping point. Duke needed to show life on defense without resorting to short bursts of zone defense against a ruthlessly efficient team. Unfortunately for them, that never came. The Devils are arguably the most talented team in the country. When everything is clicking, there isn’t a team in the nation who can top them. But if they limp through contests like they did on Saturday, they’ll finish the season disappointed.

For Virginia, this game could be a stepping stone. They’ve been among the sports’ elite for most of the past five seasons, thrice claiming a top-two seed in the NCAA tournament. But in that time period, the Hoos have still never made it past the Elite Eight and have lost twice in the tournament’s first weekend. This Cavaliers squad might not have an NBA-caliber star on its roster like it did in Malcolm Brogdon or Joe Harris, but with the way they’ve been playing, they might not need one.

Guy, Devon Hall, and Ty Jerome have carried most of the scoring load, and in Bennett’s system, they’ve stopped nearly every opponent they’ve faced. Virginia will likely be favored in every game they play for the rest of the regular season, and only an upset will stop them from finishing the ACC slate undefeated.

The Hoos are on their way to another no. 1 seed in March. And if they continue to play the way they did Saturday, a Final Four appearance won’t be far behind.