Virginia commands respect, Duke needs work heading into NCAA tourney
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Until the final two minutes Sunday, the ACC Tournament Championship was as back-and-forth affair as any we’ve seen all season. But then Virginia finally slowed down Jabari Parker and pulled away for a 72-63 win. As it’s been all season, Virginia’s calling cards — toughness, rebounding and defense — capitalized on Duke’s weaknesses, and Akil Mitchell was sensational against Parker down the stretch.
1. Duke has to get better on the backboards to have a chance in the NCAA Tournament
Duke, which earned a 3-seed from the NCAA Tournament selection committee, ranked just 11th in the ACC in rebounding heading into Sunday and it showed. While it seemed to be a back-and-forth offensive explosion in the second half between the two teams, from Duke’s perspective it was more about an inability to grab defensive rebounds at critical junctures. Virginia had seven second-half offensive rebounds — three of which came in the final five minutes and resulted in points. If Duke is to make a run in the NCAA Tournament, it knows what to focus on the next four or five days, depending on when they play.
"Playing together. Being tough. Feeding off one another. No one feeling like they’re alone on defense. Rebounding as a unit. We have to be tougher than our opponent," forward Amile Jefferson said. "Right now its not coming down to how talented you are, it’s about how fight do you have. How much do you want to play one more game and one more game?"
The back-breaker for Duke came down 59-57 with 2:28 left when Duke played great defense throughout the clock and forced a falling out-of-bounds jumper from Malcolm Brogdon, which didn’t go down. But Mitchell was there and put it back. Parker turned it over the next possession, and Joe Harris got open on the fast break and looked like he debated pulling it back out but ultimately went up and nailed the three to put Virginia up seven with two minutes remaining.
"We made them take tough shots at the end of the game and then they always got the offensive rebound, so I think all five guys have to get down there and rebound," Cook said.
Part of the problem is just Duke isn’t very big. Amile Jefferson is a power forward playing center; Parker’s a small forward able to play the four if needed; and Duke runs three-guard sets consistently. It’s the trade off Duke makes to put so many three point shooters on the floor, but it makes it even more imperative that they match the other team’s physicality and scrap and fight for loose balls.
"I just think we need to consistently rebound and play defense. Those two things wins championships," Cook said. "We can score with the best of them. If we got into our defense and our rebounding like we’ve done before, I think we can go all the way."
The preparation for the NCAA Tournament will be similar to a normal game week — receive the scouting report and implement for three to four days — but much of Duke’s preparation will likely be searching to solve this year’s Achilles heel in only three to four days. How do you get more physical in such a short time period?
"Its something that’s been there at times for us. They were just a little more physical. I think they knocked us back a little bit at the beginning with their physicality," Jefferson said.
You can’t get knocked back in the NCAA Tournament and expect to survive, though. Somehow, some way, before their first round game they have to find the fight and tenacity that enabled them to outrebound a good rebounding team in North Carolina by 14 in their regular season finale.
"We obviously don’t know who we play yet but I think we’re in good shape," said Rodney Hood, who went for 13 points, two rebounds on 4 of 12 shooting. "We have to keep our heads up and get ready. No time for pity parties, gotta get ready."
2. After his performance on Jabari Parker Sunday, can’t we all agree that Akil Mitchell’s the best defensive player this conference has to offer?
Virginia’s got the toughest team defense in the conference — if not the country — so you knew they’d make Jabari Parker work. However, even the Cavaliers looked like they had no answer for Parker midway through the second half after bottling him up in the first. Parker only had eight points in the first half but then rattled off 15 within the first 14 minutes of the second half. One stretch was particularly sensational, when he scored on three straight possessions from the 10-minute mark to the eight-minute mark of the second half.
But he’d only score one more time the rest of the way and was held scoreless over the final 6:50 — a stretch that included four missed shots and a turnover. Much of that credit should go to Mitchell. Parker’s as good as advertised — a future perennial NBA All-Star – but it’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job on him than Mitchell did. Mitchell repeatedly was physical with the freshman while still able to stay in front of him without fouling.
On the game, Parker finished with 23 points and eight rebounds but was just 9 of 24 from the floor and was non-existent down the stretch.
"He’s athletic and he anticipates a lot on the defensive end," Parker said. "I kind of read him in the second half and kind of shied away and put him off the hook and I didn’t listen to Coach like he was telling me not to settle. I started settling, but I could have just kept on going. He’s a good defensive player and he should be one of the greatest defensive players in Virginia history."
He certainly was on Sunday.
Virginia helped Mitchell with Parker at times, but not as much as most teams do. Mitchell said he just tried to stay down, keep his balance and stay in front, which he did superbly. He also owned Parker on the boards finishing with seven points, 15 rebounds including two absolutely pivotal offensive boards and putback buckets in the final five minutes that were back breakers for Duke.
"Mitchell’s a great defender. I think he made Jabari work," Quinn Cook said. "Jabari’s the best player in the country and he made him work those last couple minutes. Jabari, he’s a heck of a player so it was a heck of a battle between those two."
3. ACC continues to gain more parity and show it’s not just a Duke-North Carolina affair anymore
Until the last three years the ACC Tournament was largely The Duke Show with the Blue Devils winning 10 of 13 ACC Tournaments from 1999-2011. Since Duke’s last title in 2011, we’ve had three different winners — Florida State, Miami and now Virginia. Does that show the league’s starting to become more than a battle of the Carolinas, and should that broaden the respect the ACC gets as a whole?
"Hasn’t done anything yet," Krzyzewski responded. "Should I tell Roy the two of us should keep losing? I don’t think it comes from us. I think it comes from all of you who cover our league to make sure that the league is given the respect that it deserves. It’s not up to the coaches."
Krzyzewski’s got a point: Virginia won the ACC regular season with a 16-2 record and still it doesn’t seem to be commanding the respect a 1-seed should after sweeping the ACC titles. It’s hard to imagine Duke or North Carolina winning the ACC regular season and ACC Tournament and not being regarded as one of the scariest teams around. With the ACC getting six teams into the tourney this season, the league will only get stronger with Louisville arriving next year.
"Conference is tough. You can’t go in expecting to win, expecting anybody to lay over," senior point guard Tyler Thornton said. "Everyone’s going to come out there and fight and compete. Virginia’s been the toughest team in our conference all year, been the most together, the mot reliable and the most consistent. And they deserved that win."
4. Krzyzewski’s critical technical at the end of the first half still has him baffled
Coach Mike Krzyzewski turned in frustration over a call and threw his sharpie under the bench. It didn’t look like the type of behavior that typically warranted a technical but the referee quickly snapped one off. Virginia’s London Perrantes went to the line and calmly sank two in front of the Virginia bench as Krzyzewksi continued to protest and figure out what led to his technical foul call.
He was still bewildered after the game.
"I have no clue. None," Krzyzewski said when asked about the technical.
He was then informed the video showed him throwing a marker.
"Yeah, but you can throw a clipboard too. I didn’t do it in reaction to anything. I can hit my head on the floor. I can do a handstand. I can tumble, as long as it’s not a reaction to anybody," he said. "There’s no way that there should be a technical foul on that. I mean, that was ridiculous. Absolutely ridiculous. Shameful. Shameful."
Rasheed Sulaimon also got a technical with 40 seconds left in the game, protesting a no-call on a missed 3-pointer. His was warranted he said, though, and he admitted he was so mad his head started hurting.
"I apologize to the refs, to my team, and my coaches. That was uncharacteristic of myself," Sulaimon said. "It’s a big-time stage and emotions were running high. I thought I got hit, but I can’t react like that. As soon as it happened, I kind of hit myself in the head and knew I made a grave mistake. And I just apologize and it won’t happen again."