NCAA.com’s Mike Lopresti is on the road, taking in seven games among nine teams throughout the heart of ACC country.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Before we begin the slide presentation, understand the rarity of Feb. 7 in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Four top-10 teams, playing two games, 170 miles apart. There had never been a day like Saturday before in the ACC, or quite possibly any league.
It is rare enough for a conference to have four members in the same top 10, let alone have them all playing one another the same day.
So we had to learn something, didn’t we, when No. 4 Duke thrashed No. 10 Notre Dame by 30, and No. 3 Virginia held off No. 9 Louisville in a 52-47 slugfest? Absolutely. Perhaps the best way to explain is with a slide show of the day. Lights, please.
(Click). That, above, is Duke’s Jahlil Okafor, helping knock the Notre out of Dame. He played but eight minutes in the first half against the Irish because of early fouls. That was the half the Blue Devils outscored Notre Dame in one stretch — this is no misprint — 43-7. Mike Krzyzewski called those 20 minutes “almost perfect.” How often does a coach pull out that adjective?One of the raps on Duke has been that Okafor sometimes doesn’t get enough help. Well, he scored four points the first half. His teammates scored 46. That’s pretty good help.
”In the locker room, we know this is not a one-dimensional team,” Okafor said. “I guess in the first half today, the country got to see that.”
(Click). This is Tony Bennett, searching his vocabulary for the right analogy for how his Virginia team fared in its eight-day trial fire against three top-15 teams; losing to Duke, then beating North Carolina and Louisville. It was the first time the Cavaliers had played three consecutive top-15 opponents in 18 years.
He decided on animals.
“I use this saying. When you whip a donkey, it kicks,” he said. “When you whip a thoroughbred, it responds.”
No donkeys, these Cavaliers. Saturday, they not only slapped Louisville’s offense in a strait jacket the first half, but committed two turnovers all day. Two. The Cardinals had four field goals at halftime and went 12 amazing minutes without scoring. What did Bennett learn this week? His team is a thoroughbred.
“You’ve got to feel good when you beat those two caliber of teams,” Malcolm Brogdon said. “But then there’s that one loss and it was at home. There’s a lot to improve on, looking at that loss. There’s even a lot to improve on, looking at these wins.”
Bennett mentioned how, “They responded and played for each other. That’s our way … I tell them ‘If you guys are right and play for each other, I’ll take you against almost anyone.’ “
Even Hall of Fame coaches. With this win against Rick Pitino, Bennett has now beaten five of them, from Jim Boeheim to Roy Williams, with Krzyzewski and Larry Brown in there, too.
One big cloud, though. Virginia just lost star guard Justin Anderson 4-6 weeks with a fractured finger. Not a good time to be missing key pieces.
(Click). This is Pitino, looking frustrated enough to bite into a cactus. “We worked very hard for three days on how to beat their defense, and we ignored it in the first half, by and large,” he said of his Louisville team. Too much one-on-one stuff and high pick-and-rolls. The disciplined and nearly-always-in-the-right-place Cavaliers gobble that down like Krispy Kremes.
“Their defense is awesome. I won’t take anything away from them, but our offense was ridiculous,” Pitino said. “We didn’t move the ball. If you don’t do that, you’re going to make Virginia look like the best defensive team in the history of the game.
“I love their team, I love what they do, but we fed right into the monster and the crowd.”
While we’re on the subject of monsters, can anyone explain why trying to get to the basket against the Virginia defense is sometimes like trying to get past a dragon? These are various Cardinals, weighing in.
Guard Chris Jones: “I didn’t know they were that big. They’ve all got grown men bodies. I looked at their team and I looked at our team. We’ve got to get like those guys.”
Forward Montrezl Harrell: “They have post traps coming out of nowhere for no rhyme or reason.”
Pitino: “What separates them is that they have five guys who are alert to the ball. Some programs teach play your man, see the ball. They play the ball. … They’re on a string moving with the ball.”
With Louisville going bust for 12 minutes Saturday, Virginia has now held opponents scoreless for five or more minutes 20 times this season.
(Click). This man looking like he had just bumped into Hannibal Lecter wearing a Duke uniform is Notre Dame coach Mike Brey. He had just seen the Blue Devils shoot 81 percent the first half against his Irish. “It was one of those where you’re hanging on for dear life,” he said, adding that the whipping was so complete, he had checked the stat sheet to “make sure it only counted as one loss.”
What’s a coach and team to do after losing 90-60 to an opponent it beat only 10 days before? “In this league,” he said, “you’ve got to have kind of a short memory.”
Brey is now 2-3 against his old boss, Krzyzewski. He should be congratulated. Krzyzewski is 17-0 against all of his other former assistants.
This is Duke’s Matt Jones in case you don’t recognize him. He averaged 1.8 points a game as a freshman and has had many games of light work this sophomore season, too.
But not Saturday. He scored 17 points against Notre Dame, with three 3-pointers, that after 11 the other night against Georgia Tech.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t happy right now,” he said. “It’s like a sigh of relief to be able to feel good about yourself on the offensive end and not be liability.”
Going to a program like Duke, where the high school All-Americans might as well grow on the trees in Krzyzewski’s backyard, can mean a guy has to wait his turn. That can get hard. Jones said Krzyzewski has helped by texting him supportive messages after games.
“I’m a product of that, waiting for my chance,” Jones said. “My chance is finally here, I think.”
So does Krzyzewski. “His time is here. It’s not coming. It’s here.”
You can almost hear opponents grimace. That’s all Duke needs, another weapon.
(Click). This is Krzyzewski, pondering the past fortnight. In 14 days, Duke has given him his 1000th win with all the fanfare trimmings, lost at Notre Dame, rallied at Virginia, held off Georgia Tech, and blown away the Irish.
The Blue Devils are different than they were in mid-January.
“The last two weeks we’ve gone through more than anybody,” he said. “There’s no question our team has grown. We need to go through a lot of experiences and we don’t know what those experiences will end up being, because four of our eight guys are freshmen. You have to grow up being in that [situations] or you lose. And you can even lose and still grow up.’’
They looked pretty grown up Saturday. “We wanted to have a great Cameron Indoor moment,” Justise Winslow said.
The scary part is that Duke put up 90 points, and what both Krzyzewski and Brey talked most glowingly about afterward was Blue Devils defense. Nearly 81 points a game, 50 percent shooting, and now they’re stepping finding another zone in defense? Think what that combination might do in a few weeks.
“To be honest this is the defense that coach envisioned us playing the whole year,” Winslow said. “This type of intensity, shutting down teams with the athletes we have.”
(Click). Note all the people in orange standing in and making loud, excited racket. Did someone just execute a great scoring play? Nah. Wrong arena for that. The Cavaliers had just nearly forced the Cardinals into a shot clock violation. At Virginia, they’ve learned to crave D like they crave their ham biscuits. “Our crowd loves defense as opposed to dunks and highlight plays,” Brogdon said.
These are the same orange masses singing the Virginia alma mater, which, in case you’ve never heard it, is the same tune as Auld Lang Syne. That is how Saturday ended, in song, and with two defensive teams having combined for 97 points. It began with the painted blue faces at Duke, rolling into Cameron Indoor Stadium before noon, and the Blue Devils scoring 90 by themselves.
Along the way, we found out a little more about how far Duke and Virginia have come. How Louisville needs to work on its offensive execution. How Notre Dame just wants to have amnesia. Quite a day in the ACC.