It’s always a big deal when you can score a big upset over your arch-rival. We almost saw that on Tuesday night. With just a few minutes to play, in fact, the upset by the younger, less talented team seemed likely. But in the end, experience and talent won out, like it usually does and Virginia had to go home a loser.
What game did you think I was writing about?
OK, yeah, that one was big too. Before I get to that one though, I want to talk a bit about UVA’s near upset of Maryland. If you didn’t see the game, you’d see the final score, 76-65 and think that Virginia played OK on the road, keeping the score close. But you’d be wrong. For 30 minutes, Virginia played excellent basketball and was beating the Terps up on both ends of the floor. Maryland finally got their act together late and forged their first tie with 8 minutes left. The lead went back and forth for a few minutes before the Terrapins had a timely hot streak and pulled away.
For the Cavs, it was the second consecutive near-upset on the road against a top-tier ACC team. So how are they doing it? You know all about Sean Singletary and you’ve probably noticed that J.R. Reynolds has been playing well lately, but those guys aren’t really the story. They’ve been doing that all season. What’s really fueled Virginia’s surprising recent play has been their rebounding. Virginia isn’t a particularly big team and they certainly don’t have any interior players who anyone will consider for all-conference honors (unless Field & Stream votes on a team) but they have managed to out-rebound their last six opponents. They beat Wake Forest, the conference’s best rebounding team at that point, by 20 boards! They grabbed three more boards than Maryland, but that’s only because the Terps woke up late. Virginia had a huge lead on the glass in the first half (where they also had a big lead on the scoreboard).
So that’s your lesson of the day kids. Even if you aren’t a particularly efficient offensive team or even a great defensive team, you can stay in games by spanking teams on the glass. Simply put, extra rebounds are extra possessions and if you have 5-10 more possessions than your opponent, you can beat just about anyone.
OK, now on to the Duke-UNC game. As always, it was a lot of fun to watch. Say what you want about the rivalry being past its prime or overrated, but every time those teams face off, you know you are going to see talented players playing as hard they can for great coaches in front of a huge and rabid audience. It always makes for a great event.
This game was no exception, although the play was pretty ragged for most of the first half. UNC was playing so fast, probably due to over-excited youth, and Duke, knowing the UNC would cough it up if hurried, was content to play along. So we saw a mix of great plays and ugly turnovers.
When I briefly previewed the game, I mentioned the potential rivalry of point guards Bobby Frasor and Greg Paulus but somehow I forgot to mention the other potential rivalry between inside studs Tyler Hansbrough and Josh McRoberts. Both were among the top high school players in the country last year and both were expected to do great things this season. Because of their different teams, UNC has asked more of Hansbrough all season and he has answered. McRoberts, on the other hand, has struggled at times with his different role. Recently though, McRoberts has been showing signs of finally figuring things out. On Tuesday night, facing his old high school all-star game foe Hansbrough, McRoberts played his best game yet. You could argue that he outplayed Hansbrough, in fact. Maybe that spark and the success it brought will carry over to the rest of the season. Duke needs that to be the case.
In the second half of the game, when Duke built their big lead and then lost it, the pace slowed slightly, but was still quite frantic. Again, I attributed that to the energy in the building until about 8-5 minutes were left in the game. At that point, Roy had played just about everyone on his bench, including some guy named Copeland that I’d never even heard of. Duke only played seven guys all game and at this point, they were clearly tired. It was then that I realized that the pace was not just the result of young bucks running wild. It was Roy Williams’ strategy from the get go. He thought he could tired out Duke’s team and it was working! A brilliant stroke. Unfortunately for Roy, with the various TV timeouts and other stoppages, Duke got their legs back. Or at least, J.J. Redick did. And this season, that’s all Duke needs. The shots that Redick hit late in that game were incredible. Honestly, I shouldn’t be surprised at anything the guy does anymore, but yet I am. I seriously think that Redick may be having the best offensive season I’ve ever seen in the ACC, and that includes guys like Len Bias, Michael Jordan, Dennis Scott, Rodney Monroe, Christian Laettner, Walt Williams and all the other stars I’ve watched over the past 25 years. Redick hits difficult shots against tight defense and he hits them at critical times. Even the folks that hate him are begrudgingly admitting that this season has been special.
In the end, Carolina lost and I’m sure it hurt, but they really did play a good game. Not a perfect game, but a good one. They should be able to learn some things about consistent effort and execution that they can take with them the rest of the season. For Duke, they have to feel good about McRoberts’ recent improvement, but should be worried about their late turnovers and apparent fatigue. They’ve built a two-game lead in the conference (and there’s another two-game gap between second and third), so they might want to consider tinkering a bit with things to get ready for the post-season tournaments. I hope to have another article with more of my thoughts on that in the next few days.