By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — In the early 2000s, students sometimes camped outside University Hall to ensure themselves good seats when Duke came to town to face UVa in men’s basketball.
The admission system for students at home games has changed at the University, and there are no tents outside John Paul Jones Arena today. Tonight, though, the 14,593-seat building will be rocking. At 9 o’clock, in an ACC game that ESPN will televise, UVa (19-8, 9-5) hosts third-ranked Duke (24-3, 11-3).
The Cavaliers have won a school-record 15 straight games at JPJ, where they’re unbeaten in ACC play this season.
“I think a lot of that is just a testament to our fans and the energy that they always bring,” junior swingman Joe Harris said, “and it’s a credit to all of our students who are able to come out and support us.”
Junior big man Akil Mitchell said: “When the crowd’s behind us and we pick up the energy, and defensively it gets clicking and offensively we get clicking, we’re a dangerous team.”
Virginia’s Jan. 19 game against Florida State drew a season-high 12,303 fans at JPJ. That mark is about to fall. UVa announced Monday that all the tickets for the Duke game had been sold.
It’s always a big deal for the Cavaliers when Mike Krzyzewski brings his team to Charlottesville, but the buzz is especially loud this week.
“We understand that this is a really big game for us, for the season and just for the program in general,” said Harris, an All-ACC candidate who leads the Wahoos in scoring. “We know where we stand with the NCAA tournament and trying to get a postseason bid, and we understand how big of a win it would be to have on our résumé, to beat a team like Duke.”
The Cavaliers’ routine, however, remained unchanged this week. Head coach Tony Bennett and his assistants were equally intense during the team’s preparations for Georgia Tech last week.
“I think our coaching staff does a really good job [of staying on an even keel],” Harris said. “We prepare the same way for everybody, and the only thing we really change up is defending the specific type of personnel and learning about their tendencies.”
Associate head coach Ritchie McKay put together the scouting report on Duke, which has won eight straight over UVa. The keys to knocking off the Blue Devils?
“Teams that beat Duke typically don’t give them extra possessions, they do a great job of getting back in transition, and they’re sound offensively,” McKay said. “They don’t turn it over, and they take good shots. Even still, you can do all those things and still end up on the wrong side of the scoreboard. But to have a chance, they’re a necessity.”
Duke lost one of its best players, 6-11 senior Ryan Kelly, to a foot injury in early January. Kelly, a former UVa recruiting target, averages 13.4 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.7 rebounds and 1.5 assists. He won’t play tonight but is expected back this season.
“Initially, I think, [the loss of Kelly] affected them significantly,” McKay said, “because No. 1, he’s a really, really good player, and No. 2, he was a big part of what they did offensively, and his experience and knowledge of the system and leadership made them a great team.
“But they’ve adjusted now. [Rasheed] Sulaimon has been playing great, [Seth] Curry’s a special player, and [Mason] Plumlee is an All-American candidate. You throw Quinn Cook in there, and then [Amile] Jefferson and [Josh] Hairston and [Alex] Murphy, and they’ve done a good job of picking up the pieces and remaining one of the best teams in the country.”
McKay has followed Curry’s career at Duke with special interest. In 2008-09, McKay was head coach at Liberty University, and Curry was a skinny freshman guard at the Lynchburg school.
The Flames went 23-12 that season. One of their victories came at JPJ, where Curry scored 26 points in a 86-82 win over the Cavaliers, who were in their final season under coach Dave Leitao.
After the season, Curry, who played with Mitchell at Charlotte Christian, transferred to Duke, and McKay joined Bennett’s new staff at UVa.
It seems ages ago, McKay acknowledged Wednesday, that Curry played at JPJ for the first time. Now a fifth-year senior, the 6-2 Curry is averaging 16.8 points and has made 69 treys this season, second only to NC State’s Scott Wood among ACC players.
“I look at him now, and he’s grown up so much,” McKay said. “His body’s changed. His demeanor hasn’t changed much, but he’s gotten better and better, and to his credit and their staff’s credit, they’ve really developed him into a terrific player. I loved coaching him and root for him every time I watch, with the exception of the 40 minutes he’s going to play tonight.”
With Kelly out, Krzyzewski has often gone with smaller lineups. A leg injury to 6-8 sophomore Darion Atkins, and the mononucleosis that sidelined 6-11 freshman Mike Tobey for five games, forced Bennett to do the same thing.
Justin Anderson, a 6-7 freshman who’s most comfortable on wing, is expected to start his seventh straight game at power forward for the Cavaliers tonight.
“Out of necessity we started to go smaller,” McKay said, “and it’s helped us a little bit offensively, but we’re still a work in progress.”
Virginia has more options than at this time last week. Tobey was cleared to play Sunday afternoon against Georgia Tech, and he totaled seven points and four rebounds in his first appearance since Feb. 3. With Atkins still hobbled a stress reaction in his right leg, Tobey’s presence “is huge” for the `Hoos, Harris said.
“Tobey is obviously a very skilled offensive player,” Harris said. “He started a little slow in the Georgia Tech game, but then he really picked it up and kind of got the monkey off his back, I guess you would say. Just having his presence down low against someone like a Plumlee, that will be big.”
Krzyzewski is invariably complimentary when asked about Duke opponents, and that was the case Monday on the weekly ACC coaches’ teleconference.
Virginia is “just a good basketball team,” Coach K said. “Harris is really one of the better players in the country. He’s a warrior. He reminds me of [former Duke great Kyle] Singler as far as their toughness. They’re a little bit different players, but their toughness. They play every play. He’s terrific. He’s one of the favorite players that I’ve watched, not just in our conference but around the country.”
UVa is coming off an 82-54 win over Georgia Tech. After that game ended, Virginia point guard Jontel Evans was asked about the Blue Devils.
“We’re ready for Duke right now,” Evans said. “This Georgia Tech win is behind us, and our focus is on Duke. It’s going to be a battle.”
The Cavaliers are seeking their first win over a top-5 opponent since Feb. 28, 2002, when they beat the No. 3 Devils 87-84 before a frenzied crowd at U-Hall. To pull off another upset, the `Hoos must “continue to be tough and rugged,” Anderson said. “It’s going to be one of those games where we’re going to have to battle to the end. Fifty-fifty balls are going to be important.”
Bennett said as much in practice Tuesday.
“It’ll be a battle of whose will is stronger,” he told his players, “and yours has gotta be if you want to get this.”