By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTESVILLE — His first experience with Duke’s storied Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the University of Virginia men’s basketball team plays Saturday, came almost a quarter-century ago.
“It’s the same atmosphere,” Jason Williford said Thursday at John Paul Jones Arena. “Nothing’s changed.”
Williford, now an assistant coach at his alma mater, was a senior forward on the UVA team that defeated Duke 91-88 in double overtime on Jan. 14, 1995. Twenty-one years later, the Cavaliers are still seeking their next win over the Blue Devils in Durham, N.C.
Another opportunity comes at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, when seventh-ranked Virginia (20-4 overall, 9-3 ACC) meets unranked Duke (18-6, 7-4) at Cameron Indoor Stadium. ESPN will televise the game, the first in Durham between these ACC rivals since Jan. 13, 2014, when Duke held on for a 69-65 victory. The Cavaliers avenged that loss later that season, beating the Blue Devils in the ACC tournament final.
“It’s going to be a fun time for us,” UVA forward Anthony Gill said of playing in Cameron. “We have a lot of guys on the team who have never been there, and it’s going to be a fun experience for them, and it’ll be a good experience even for us upperclassmen.”
Gill, a fifth-year senior, transferred to Virginia from South Carolina after 2011-12 season. As a Cavalier, he’s played at Duke once, as have junior London Perrantes and seniors Mike Tobey and Evan Nolte. Malcolm Brogdon, a fifth-year senior, is the only player on UVA’s roster to have played at Cameron twice (2011-12 and 2013-14).
Virginia’s less seasoned players include redshirt sophomores Devon Hall and Darius Thompson and sophomores Isaiah Wilkins and Marial Shayok. Gill would remind them that the Wahoos have won in such venues as Louisville’s KFC Yum! Center and Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center.
At Cameron, Gill said, it’s important not to “get too caught up in everything else that goes along with it. It’s a great atmosphere, it’s really small, and everybody feels like they’re on top of you. But it’s the same game. We’ve been playing this game since we were little, and nothing’s going to change because of what facility were in.”
The Cavaliers’ seven-game winning streak is the ACC’s longest. The Blue Devils’ streak — three wins in a row — is more modest, but it reflects the strides they’ve made without Amile Jefferson, their best post player.
Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski has not said publicly when Jefferson will return to action. A 6-9, 225-pound senior who’s averaging 11.4 points and 10.3 rebounds, Jefferson has been sidelined since fracturing his right foot in practice Dec. 12.
“I know that seems like a long time ago,” Virginia assistant coach Brad Soderberg said, “but they went through almost their whole non-conference schedule with him, and then all of the sudden they lose him and they go into the ACC. That’s a tough assignment.”
With Jefferson out, Krzyzewski has essentially gone with a six-man rotation consisting of guards Grayson Allen (20.8 ppg), Luke Kennard (12.5 ppg), Matt Jones (11.6 ppg) and Derryck Thornton (8.3 ppg), swingman Brandon Ingram (16.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg) and center Marshall Plumlee (8.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg).
“They only play one post player, literally,” said Soderberg, who prepared the scouting report on the Devils for Virginia.
Ingram, a freshman who’s widely projected to be taken second overall in the next NBA draft, stands 6-9, “but he’s certainly not a post player,” Soderberg said.
“He’s only 190 pounds and extremely skilled and can shoot the [3-pointer] really well. This will be another challenge. I’d almost prefer to play two guys who are bigger but aren’t as mobile.”
Duke has played zone defense extensively in recent games, Soderberg said, with considerable success.
“I do think they’re doing it partly because they’re trying to stay out of foul trouble, and partly because they’re trying to rest the guys that are getting over  minutes a game,” he said.
“When they play their 2-3 zone or their 1-3-1, what makes it hard is that Ingram is at the top. That’s like throwing it over one of those old TV antennas. He’s just so long and agile.”
Virginia is coming off a 67-49 win over Virginia Tech at JPJ. The keys for the Cavaliers in Durham?
“One is real obvious and one is more subtle,” said Soderberg, who’s in his first season on his longtime friend Tony Bennett‘s staff at UVA.
“One is, we have to get back in transition, because [the Devils] may be short-handed, but they still run really well. And secondly, I think they do a great job of getting to the lane off the dribble.
“Though it didn’t show up in the stats, because Virginia Tech missed a bunch of shots, they were in the lane a lot in the second half of that game, and that’s something we have to address, because Duke’s offense is designed for their McDonald’s All-Americans to make plays off the dribble, and they take full advantage.”
Gill said: “It’s going to be a challenge for us, because Ingram is such a great player who can really spread the floor out on us, so we have to be aware of him.”
The Cavaliers practiced Friday afternoon before boarding the bus that would take them to Durham. The session was much more than a glorified shootaround. The intensity was palpable on JPJ’s main court.
“I don’t think you understand what’s coming,” Bennett barked at one point.
This is Bennett’s seventh year with the Cavaliers, who have won back-to-back ACC regular-season titles and 80 of their past 95 games. The only ACC arena in which he hasn’t won is Cameron Indoor Stadium. The same is true for Bennett’s upperclassmen, who are eager to try to break through in Durham.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere and a great game,” Gill said.
The Cavaliers have had two lengthy winning streaks this season. After losing Nov. 16 at George Washington, UVA ran off 11 consecutive victories before falling Jan. 4 at Virginia Tech. Even as the wins piled up, though, there was cause for concern, as the `Hoos committed uncharacteristic defensive errors.
“I would say that we weren’t playing Virginia basketball, even before that game [in Blacksburg],” Gill said Tuesday night. “Even with the games that we were winning before that, [it wasn’t the] typical UVA basketball that you normally would see out of us. This last stretch of games that we’ve been winning, it’s because we got back to the way we play basketball.”
The turning point, Gill said, was the last-second 3-pointer by Thompson that capped an improbable comeback for the `Hoos in Winston-Salem, N.C. Virginia scored 18 points in the final 76 seconds to stun Wake Forest 72-71 on Jan. 26.
Thompson’s you-had-to-see-it-to-believe-it shot “put something in our tanks and gave us a lot of energy and let us know that we can really go out here and compete with each and every team in the ACC,” Gill said.