Duke gives Cards another worry with its new-found 3-point barrage

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (KT) - Virginia coach Tony Bennett thought he had a solid game plan against No. 2 Duke's Diaper Dandies Saturday in their Atlantic Coast Conference showdown.


Jam the lane to stop penetration and keep the ball away from man-child Zion Williamson, one of Duke's four starting freshman phenoms, as much as possible.


Then the Blue Devils started hitting 3-pointers. So much for Bennett's strategy. Duke 81, Virginia 71.


Now it's Chris Mack's turn to try and come up with a scheme that could lead to No. 16 Louisville (17-7, 8-3) upsetting the team that the NCAA selection committee says is currently the best team in the nation when they meet at 9 o'clock Tuesday night in the KFC Yum! Center.


"They're pretty good," Mack said wryly Monday in an obvious understatement.


Here is forward Jordan Nwora's concise scouting report:


"They have a lot of talent. I wouldn't say they're a pro team; they're in college like the rest of us. But it's obvious they have a lot of pro talent. It's fun to watch them sometimes."


But will it be fun to play against them?


"Yeah, I think it's fun to play everybody, so it'll be fun to play them, too."


A UofL win would be both fun and huge. Not only would it keep the Cardinals among the top four teams in the ACC, but it would also boost their chances to rise from a projected No. 4 seed to a No. 3 in the NCAA Tournament.


Duke (21-2, 9-1), tied with North Carolina for the ACC lead, may have thrown a monkey wrench into Louisville's preparation with its performance against Virginia. Entering that game, the Blue Devils were one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the nation at 30.8 percent. But they made seven of their first eight to build a quick double-digit lead and finished 13-of-21 for 61.9 percent. R.J. Barrett hit six treys and fellow freshman Cam Reddish made 5-of-8.


UofL has held opponents to 32.4 percent from distance this season and has allowed double-digit 3-pointers in ACC just twice (Miami 10 and NC State 12).


Mack wants the Cards to keep Duke point guard Tre Jones, Barrett and Reddish out of the lane and limit Williamson's paint touches since the Blue Devils are averaging 38.2 points in ACC games. But it's a pick your poison situation if Duke is hot behind the arc again.


"It makes our challenge even greater because you have guys that are capable of getting to the rim at a moment's notice," Mack said. "So if you play too far off and they going to shoot the way they did the other night I think anybody in the country's going to have a tough time beating them."


Nwora (6-7, 225) could be matched up against the 6-7, 285-pound Williamson much of the time, as will 6-10 Steven Enoch and 6-11 Malik Williams under the basket.


"We have to do our best keeping him out of the paint," Nwora said. "Everybody who plays college basketball knows what he does. It's really just playing our defense, really packing it in and hopefully keeping not only him, but RJ and some of those other guys out of the lane. It'll leave some of their shooters open, but I don't know what to say about that. If they hit a few, it happens. We're still going to try to contest those shots, but our main goal is keeping them out of the lane."


Williamson's comments after the Virginia game give an indication of what UofL will face if the Devils are hitting threes. It can be deflating to a defense jamming the lane when a team is banging in treys, which in turn helps players attack off the dribble.


"When we open up the defense with 3s, it just makes our driving lanes much bigger, Williamson said.


Barrett and Williamson are one-two in the ACC in scoring and are the highest-scoring duo in the country at 44.9 points per game. Barrett, who had 26 points and seven assists against the Cavaliers, leads the league at 23.1 ppg. Williamson, who had 18 points and five assists despite being the focus of Virginia's pack line defense, is averaging 21.8 ppg and 9.2 rebounds. He's shooting 68.4 percent from the field. Reddish is Duke's third double-figure scorer at 13.6 ppg.


In defending Williamson, "We just have to be cognizant of him in space, try to crowd the floor as best we can, try not to get bullied or punked on the offensive glass," Mack says. "That happens to a lot of players and that's the challenge that just one of their players presents."


Duke, which has won seven in a row since a 95-91 overtime loss to Syracuse on Jan. 14, can boast superlatives up and down its stats sheet. The Blue Devils lead the nation in blocked shots per game (7.4), are third in steals (10.5), third in scoring (86.6), fifth in offensive rebounds per game (14.1) and ninth in field goal percentage defense (.386). Jones leads the ACC in assists (5.6) and is fourth in the country in assists/turnover ratio (4.50).


"It starts with their talent level," Mack said. "But outside of that, they play together. They play extremely hard on the defensive end and what they maybe lack in experience, they make up for with their high motors and just basketball instinct, athleticism, length.


"They play on offense in attack mode and they go from defense to offense as well as any team I've coached against. Coach K does a really good job of putting them in positions where they have a lot of space to operate because they're very difficult to defend in one-on-one situations. I think they also are extremely unselfish, so when you double a certain guy or you flood to help, they don't take those bad shots that so often you play against when you go against really good players.


"They're a team that steals momentum quickly, the way they offensive rebound, with the way they turn defense into offense, and we have to be able to take those away. If we do, we'll give ourselves a chance to win. If we don't then we'll be like their other 21 victims."


Also critical to UofL's success is to be stronger with the ball and make better decisions with the ball, especially with Duke ranking No. 1 nationally in both steal percentage and block percentage. In Saturday's overtime loss at Florida State, UofL committed 23 turnovers, which the Seminoles converted into 32 points.


If the Cards succumb to Duke's pressure and give the ball away at anything close to that rate, they'll have no chance.


UofL is 2-4 vs. Duke since joining the ACC, but the Cards are 6-5 overall, making them the only school to play the Blue Devils more than three times and have a winning record during the Mike Krzyzewski era. Louisville beat Duke 72-69 for the 1986 national championship and has prevailed in the Devils' last two trips to the Yum! Center -- 71-64 in 2016 and 78-69 in 2017. 


Russ Brown, a former sportswriter for The Courier-Journal and USA Today, covers University of Louisville sports and college football and basketball for Kentucky Today. He can be contacted at 0926.russ.brown@gmail.com

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