Brownlow: A Duke team that can hit 3-pointers turns the Blue Devils from very good to unfair
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- No. 2 Duke appeared to have one rather obvious flaw. It couldn’t make 3-pointers.
It wasn’t an unfair knock. Even in winning its previous six games entering the Virginia game, Duke had shot just 27.6% from beyond the arc. So the scouting report on Duke was out. Clog the line so that Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett can’t just attack the basket at will. Turn Duke into a perimeter shooting team.
Virginia is one of the best defensive teams in the country and has one of the best coaches in the country. It knew what it needed to do.
ESPN’s College GameDay was in town, and the crowd was ready for something - anything - good to happen. It was ready for Virginia to get revenge on Duke after losing the first meeting in Durham.
The crowd was in a full lather. But so, as it turned out, was Barrett.
“You could see right away he was lathered up,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said of Barrett. “He got us off to such a good start.”
Barrett hit two 3-pointers in the first 2:19 of the game and would hit his first five 3-point attempts before missing, but those two quick ones did seem to set the tone.
And at the end of the game, Duke had the most points against Virginia in regulation since 2013 and had its most made 3-pointers in a game since November 11, draining 13 of 21 attempts from beyond the arc (a season-high 61.9%).
Williamson is so powerful and difficult to stop around the basket for all teams, and he was against Virginia in the first meeting as well. Barrett was too, and both of them seemed to get anything they want in the paint in the second half back in Durham against Virginia.
Virginia was not going to let Duke beat them that way again. And Duke didn’t.
But they found another way.
″(Virginia) packed the lane a lot, so when we were driving, they help off of guys so the kick was open,” Duke point guard Tre Jones said.
“We’ve just been in the gym a lot lately working on our shots because we haven’t been hitting them. So the time that we’ve been putting in definitely paid off today and we were able to knock down the big shots.”
But there is something about unexpectedly hitting those shots on the road that seems to demoralize an opponent.
Doing it in the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor seems to get the Duke crowd into it, but the Duke crowd is usually into it anyway.
Doing it on the road when Duke isn’t supposed to be a team that can do that? It just feels like a gut punch that takes all of the air out of the arena, and it did to Virginia.
“Just like at home, when you hit those big shots and the crowd gets into it, on the road it’s the exact opposite,” Jones said. “Their crowd is into it, you make a big play and it silences them. That’s how you know you’re doing the right thing.”
Early on, Barrett’s 3-pointers that he hit were fairly contested. But Virginia was still going to collapse into the lane and help on drives, leaving Duke players open for 3-pointers (relatively speaking).
So Duke wasn’t surprised that the 3-pointers were there for Duke to take. They’ll continue to be there, even after this performance.
“I wasn’t really surprised. I feel like that’s the scouting report on us now,” Jones said. “Teams think that because of our percentages, we’re not able to knock down the shot. But when we’re shooting open 3s and it’s off good passes and good offense, I feel like our percentages definitely go up.”
Williamson, by his standards, had a bad game. He had five turnovers and just eight field-goal attempts, which were tied for his fewest in a game this season.
But, he also did this.
When De’Andre Hunter caught that ball for what looked like a wide-open 3-pointer, Williamson still had two feet in the lane.
The things Williamson can do at his size with his quickness and athleticism and skill are other-wordly. He makes playing against Duke feel like it’s not a fair fight from the opening tip, even if you’re a really good team (and Virginia is).
Virginia limited him as much as he can be limited, and he still was able to do something that no other human on the court could do - on that court in Charlottesville, or most other courts in the world, really.
And Williamson explained the play this way:
″(Krzyzewski) said no 3s, so I just tried to get out there and make him drive. But he shot it, so I blocked it,” Williamson said, meeting the eyes of incredulous reporters who could not believe such an insane play could be described so simply.
All Williamson could do was shrug.
And if this Duke team is going to make 3-pointers at the clip it did in Charlottesville?
All most opponents will be able to do is shrug.