CHARLOTTESVILLE—There are certain things you can rely on: death, taxes, the sun rising in the east and political acrimony.
Usually, Virginia playing great defense is on that list. Saturday’s 81–71 home loss to No. 2 Duke challenged that notion, and now it’s up to the third-ranked Cavaliers to prove that was an aberration rather than a troubling trend.
After two losses to the Blue Devils, it’s clear that Virginia (20–2, 8–2) isn’t the class of the Atlantic Coast Conference at this moment. With less than 48 hours to shake off the disappointment and prepare for a visit to eighth-ranked North Carolina, the Cavaliers are facing their first real adversity since they were ridiculed for their historic NCAA tournament loss to UMBC in March.
“You can’t beat a team like Duke, especially when they’re shooting like that, without playing a sounder, cleaner game,” coach Tony Bennett said.
The Blue Devils absolutely justified their projected No. 1 overall seed revealed by the NCAA tournament selection committee earlier Saturday. But you can substitute North Carolina (Monday’s opponent) or Virginia Tech (Feb. 18) or Louisville (Feb. 23) for Duke in Bennett’s statement, and his meaning doesn’t change.
Virginia entered Saturday’s highly anticipated game—even LeBron James showed up—leading the nation in 3-point percentage defense (.247), allowing an average of five per game. It took Duke just 6½ minutes to go 5 for 5 from long range, and the Devils—who ranked 13th in the ACC at 31 percent—finished 13 for 21 on the night.
“We’re a team that doesn’t get fazed very easily,” said Kyle Guy, who’s more accustomed to making 3-pointers than allowing them. “Obviously, when a team makes 5 in a row and 7 of 8, it’s hard. It was an uphill battle all game.”
Added Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski: “When we moved the ball and got them to move a little bit, sometimes we got some open shots.”
Aside from the UMBC debacle, that doesn’t usually happen to the Cavaliers, who hadn’t allowed 81 points in a regulation game since ceding 87 to Tennessee in 2013.
Turnovers are also something you don’t associate with Virginia; yet the Cavaliers have committed 43 in their last three games after averaging 8.5 through their first 19.
On consecutive plays in the first three minutes, Mamadi Diakite and Guy had their pockets picked, leading to a Zion Williamson dunk and one of R.J. Barrett’s six 3-pointers. That helped dig a 29–14 hole from which the Cavaliers never escaped. Duke finished with 17 fast-break points to Virginia’s zero.
“There were a couple of careless ones here and there,” Bennett said.
There’s no shame in losing to Duke; pretty much everyone does it. But despite showing scrappiness, the Cavaliers never led Saturday and were far less competitive than they were in last month’s 72–70 loss in Durham (their only other defeat of the season).
It’s not the result that should concern Bennett and his players; it’s their deviation from the norm. Bennett has built his program on discipline and defense, and both have been lacking recently.
Here’s another trend: the Cavaliers don’t usually repeat their mistakes. They haven’t lost consecutive games since February of 2017—not coincidentally, to Duke and North Carolina.
If they don’t clean up their mess, that could happen again—especially if they have to face the Tar Heels without Diakite, who suffered an apparent concussion after violently banging heads with teammate De’Andre Hunter. And given their tough schedule ahead, an uncharacteristic loss could turn into an even rarer slump if they’re not careful.
“We have experience in that kind of thing,” Guy said. “A quick turnaround will be good for us.”
He’s right. The Cavaliers need to turn things around. Quickly.