Duke Basketball: What Blue Devils Must Prove Against Virginia and Miami

Thad NovakCorrespondent IFebruary 24, 2013

DURHAM, NC - FEBRUARY 07:  Mason Plumlee #5 of the Duke Blue Devils celebrates after a play during their game against the North Carolina State Wolfpack at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 7, 2013 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Duke basketball got a predictably easy home win over Boston College on Sunday to move to 24-3 on the season. The Blue Devils are very much on track for a No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, but their next week’s worth of games will have a lot to say about whether they stay there.

Duke’s next contest is a Thursday road trip to dangerous Virginia, a team that specializes in turning home games into defensive quagmires for the opposition. That meeting comes less than 48 hours ahead of the Blue Devils’ most significant game of the conference season: a home date with the ACC-leading Miami Hurricanes, who obliterated them by a 90-63 score in their first meeting.

Both games will be great opportunities for the Blue Devils to make statements to the selection committee. With a sweep of the pair, they can lock down a No. 1 seed, irrespective of the outcome of the ACC tournament.

At Virginia, which is probably March Madness-bound in its own right, Duke can show off its own much-improved defense. The Blue Devils struggled when shot-blocking Ryan Kelly went down with a foot injury, but the high-energy tandem of Josh Hairston and Amile Jefferson has done a lot to make up for Kelly’s absence inside.

Duke’s perimeter D will get an especially tough test from Virginia scoring leader Joe Harris. The 6’6” junior will tower over any guard the Blue Devils can throw at him, and after struggling all season to rebound from the wings, Duke will need to work to keep Harris off the glass.

Duke’s usual approach of bombing opponents into submission from three-point range isn’t likely to pay off in Charlottesville, so winning with defense first will greatly improve its shot at dodging a road upset. It’ll also help Coach K’s squad show that it’s ready for the much slower pace it’s going to face in NCAA Tournament action.

As for Saturday’s showdown with Miami, Duke will be facing a Final Four-caliber foe for just the second time since Kelly’s injury. Considering what a disaster the first such game (at Miami) was, the Blue Devils need to prove that they can still handle the size and skill of an elite opponent.

Mason Plumlee will be particularly in the spotlight, as big, physical ACC centers have plagued him all season. Facing down Miami’s titanic trio of Kenny Kadji, Julian Gamble and Reggie Johnson will show just how ready Plumlee is for the physical post players the Big East and Big Ten will throw at him in March.

Miami’s defense isn’t likely to hold Duke to 17 percent long-range shooting on its home floor, but a big game from the Blue Devil guards would still be a big step forward. Quinn Cook and Seth Curry played disastrously in the first meeting (1-for-22 from the field combined), and another flop like that could be enough to knock Duke off the top line of the Big Dance bracket.

With Duke’s huge advantages in strength of schedule and quality wins compared to most of the country, the Blue Devils can survive one loss this week and still hang on to a No. 1 seed. What they can’t do is lose decisively, as they’ve done in two of their three defeats to date.

It’s one thing for Duke to miss a three-pointer on a last-ditch possession. It’s quite another for the Blue Devils to let the other team control the game, as both Virginia and Miami are entirely capable of doing.

In the former case, even a Duke loss will be palatable to the selection committee. In the latter, Duke will likely be looking up at top-seeded Miami from the No. 2 line on Selection Sunday.