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Daniel Wilco | NCAA.com | January 19, 2019

Virginia vs. Duke prediction: 3 stats tell us who will win this Top-5 matchup

Does Virginia have what it takes to top the Blue Devils in Cameron?

No. 5 Virginia is one of just two teams in the country that are still undefeated after 16 games. On Saturday, the Cavaliers travel to Cameron Indoor to play No. 1 Duke — possibly the biggest hurdle left in maintaining that perfect record.

You can watch the game on ESPN at 6 p.m. ET.

Before the game, we look at three key factors that will make a difference, then predict who will win this Top-5 matchup.

Virginia-Duke: Prediction, keys to the game

Control the 3-point line, control the game

In the 95-91 loss to Syracuse, Duke went 9-for-43 from 3-point range. That is not a typo. That is also not a winning strategy. 

Other than that game, Duke has averaged just 24.4 3-point attempts per game, and hit 33.1 percent. The Blue Devils are not a 3-point shooting team this year. They have the 280th-best accuracy in the country. 

That Syracuse performance was actually not the worst performance based on accuracy this year, as Duke went 5-for-24 against Eastern Michigan (.208), 5-for-26 against Hartford (.192), and 3-for-20 against Texas Tech (.150). What do all three of those teams have in common? None of them have an offensive rating ranked better than 150. Duke could afford bad shooting nights, because even a good shooting night from its opponent couldn’t come close to Duke’s offensive potential. 

RELATED: What dominating wins by Virginia and Tennessee mean after Duke's loss

That isn’t the case with Virginia. The Cavaliers have the fourth-best offensive rating in the country, per KenPom. If that weren’t enough, they have the No. 1 3-point defense in the nation, holding opponents to an average of 25.1 percent from beyond the arc. If Duke puts up 3-pointers anything like how they did against Syracuse, they will get run out of Cameron Indoor.

How much will Tre Jones’ absence hurt Duke?

Early in Monday night’s game against Syracuse, Duke guard Tre Jones suffered an AC joint injury that the program later announced would keep him out of the lineup indefinitely. That’s a huge loss for the Blue Devils.

With Jones this season, Duke averaged a defensive rating of 83.82 points per 100 possessions, which would make them the third-best defense in the country, behind Texas Tech and Virginia.

Though it’s hard to extrapolate from part of one game, let’s do a little experiment. 

Jones went out with 14:24 left in the first half against Syracuse. At that time, the Blue Devils were up 14-6. Through those first 5 minutes and 36 seconds Duke had a defensive rating of approximately 50 points per 100 possessions. Syracuse won that game 95-91, and Duke’s defensive rating was approximately 117 points per 100 possessions in the final 39:24. Now this is hardly a fair comparison, as Jones was not the sole reason Syracuse got off to a slow start, his absence wasn’t the only reason that they heated up, and those are extremely small sample sizes to draw major conclusions from. But Jones did have four steals in the first six minutes of play, three of which led to Duke field goals, and the difference between his time on the court and the rest of the game is extreme.

MORE: Andy Katz's Power 36

While Jones’ absence on the offensive side will certainly be felt — he’s the only true point guard in the Blue Devils’ rotation — it’s likely that Duke’s defensive unit suffers most without him. Against an efficient Virginia offense, that could make the difference.

Pacemakers

This statistic comes up in almost every discussion about Virginia basketball, and it makes sense. No statistic is as tied to a school’s identity as pace is to Virginia. The Cavaliers are the second-slowest team in the country — behind only Siena — at just 62.1 possessions per 40 minutes (the national average is 70.6). 

The Cavaliers have played a medley of slow and fast teams this year, but one thing has stayed consistent: they’ve always been able to impose their will. Of the 15 teams Virginia has played this season, 14 have been held to under their average pace, including Virginia Tech, Towson, and Wisconsin, which all rank in the bottom 40 of pace on their own.

The only team that has managed to play faster than normal against Virginia is Marshall, and that did not go well for the Thundering Herd. Virginia took a season-high 62 field goals against Marshall and won 100-64. It was the first time Virginia has scored in triple digits since November 2008.

That Marshall game also saw Virginia collect season-highs of 14 offensive rebounds and 45 total rebounds. They won’t come close to that against Duke. Marshall is the second-worst team in the nation when it comes to total rebounding percentage, while Duke is the 23rd best.

Either way the game’s tempo goes, something is going to have to budge Saturday. Virginia has had one game with a pace higher than 71. Duke has had zero games with a pace lower than 71. 

Prediction:

Duke’s performance against Syracuse showed a crack in the armor for the Blue Devils. Yes, that was without Jones and Cam Reddish as well, but we’ll know a lot more about Jones’ impact after Saturday. A week ago, this would have been Duke’s game to lose, but after Duke lost its point guard and Virginia routed No. 9 Virginia Tech, the forecasts have turned. As with any Top-5 matchup, this could go either way, but don’t be surprised if the Cavaliers run away with one in Durham. Score prediction: Virginia 85, Duke 79

How we're doing with these predictions

We're 5-4 so far. Not terrible, not great.

Virginia vs. Virginia Tech (Jan. 15)

  • Our pick: Virginia Tech
  • Result: Loss

Ohio State vs. Michigan State (Jan. 5)

  • Our pick: Michigan State
  • Result: Win

Virginia vs. Florida State (Jan. 5)

  • Our pick: Virginia
  • Result: Win

Kentucky vs. North Carolina (Dec. 22)

  • Our pick: North Carolina
  • Result: Loss

Gonzaga vs. North Carolina (Dec. 15)

  • Our pick: North Carolina
  • Result: Win

Kansas vs. Villanova (Dec. 15)

  • Our pick: Kansas
  • Result: Win

Gonzaga vs. Tennessee (Dec. 9)

  • Our pick: Gonzaga
  • Result: Loss

North Carolina vs. Michigan (Nov. 28)

  • Our pick: North Carolina
  • Result: Loss

Duke vs. Auburn (Nov. 20)

  • Our pick: Duke
  • Result: Win

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