The big story out of the college basketball world last weekend was the announcement of where 2018 top recruit Zion Williamson would be attending school: Duke. With the commitment from Williamson, Duke now has the top three recruits in 2018’s 247 Sports composite rankings, and four of the Top 10. This comes one year after Duke brought in the country’s number one class that has been producing fruit for the Blue Devils on the floor all season.
While Duke fans are plenty excited about the future, this year’s group has them dreaming of cutting down the nets in San Antonio. Ranked number four in the AP Top 25 currently, the Blue Devils have a big game ahead of them on Saturday when the second-ranked Virginia Cavaliers pay a visit to Cameron Indoor. Entering the game, Duke is the highest-scoring team in the country while Virginia gives up the fewest points per game. How will the battle of opposing wills play out? We asked former UVA coach and current CBS Sports Network analyst Pete Gillen for his thoughts on that and more as we look ahead to the weekend slate of college basketball.
CBS Local Sports: N.C. State heads to UNC this weekend and the Wolfpack have had an up-and-down year in the ACC to this point. Wins over Duke and Clemson, a close loss to Miami, but also blowout losses to Notre Dame, Clemson and UVA. What’s the biggest reason for their inconsistency this season?
Pete Gillen: The new coach, Kevin Keatts, is trying to put in a new system. A pressing, aggressive, up-tempo system like Coach Rick Pitino had at Louisville when Keatts worked for him for three years. There’s been a few bumps in the road, and a few great wins, like you said beating Duke, Clemson and beating Arizona. But, then they lost to UNC-Greensboro and a couple of other teams at home including Northern Iowa who’s just a fair team this year.
They’re adjusting. They’ve got some new players, graduate transfers, Lennard Freeman is doing well. But, I think right now it’s a big change in the new system. There’s still a lot of basketball to be played, they’re 13-7, and I think there’s a chance to be an NCAA Tournament team, right now they’re not. But, they could make it if they finish strong. It’s a transitional year, with some great highs and some lows unfortunately for N.C. State.
CBS Local Sports: The Tar Heels had a four-game winning streak come to an end against Virginia Tech earlier this week, what’s the biggest strength in this year’s group as opposed to last year’s national title winning squad?
Pete Gillen: They lost so many players from last year’s team and some great talent, but they have a great 1-2 punch in senior guard Joel Berry II and forward Luke Maye. They’ve got a nice big guy-little guy combo there and, they’re playing smaller this year. They’re playing four perimeter guys and one post guy in Luke Maye who is more of a four-man, but he can step out and hit the three along with being able to go inside. Cameron Johnson, the transfer from Pittsburgh, is a good addition and he’s playing better now.
But, they’re not really good on the road. They’ve struggled on the road this season with a couple of losses including at Virginia Tech, who pounded them, and Virginia beat them pretty handily. I think they’re a good team, but they’re still a work in progress. Once again, they lost so many players from last season that they were bound to take a half step back, but they’re still a very formidable team, just not on the same level as last year.
CBS Local Sports: Biggest key in their match-up on Saturday?
Pete Gillen: I think it’s going to be a very close game. The game is at North Carolina so I’m going to give the edge to the Tar Heels. Joel Berry is terrific with his ball-handling ability and scoring. North Carolina is skilled, but they have more trouble with physical teams, aggressive teams. That’s why I think it’s going to be a close game, but I pick the Tar Heels by a couple because of Joel Berry and Luke Maye.
CBS Local Sports: Later in the day, Duke hosts Virginia, in a battle of Top 5 teams, how do you see that game playing out?
Pete Gillen: It’s a contrast of styles, Virginia leads the nation in points allowed at only 52 points per game which is pretty amazing. Duke, on the other hand, leads the nation in scoring at almost 92 points per game. Virginia has always had a tough time at Cameron Indoor, when I was the coach at Virginia, we never won at Cameron Indoor. We beat them a couple of times at Virginia but we couldn’t beat them there.
The key for Duke to win on Saturday is, they’re going to have to shoot over the defense and knock down threes. Grayson Allen is a big, big key to the game and Gary Trent Jr. as well, those two guys are going to need to knock down threes. Then you have Marvin Bagley, who’s a great player, he’s probably behind Trae Young, the second-best player in the country. He’s going to have to score both inside and outside. It should be a great game.
I’m going to have to pick Virginia, my old school, I’m going to pick them by one. That would mean finally breaking the hex of not winning at Durham since 1995. It should be a great game of contrasting styles. Duke loves to get up-and-down, chuck and duck, score in the 80’s, while Virginia wants to play a game in the 50’s or 60’s.
CBS Local Sports: The ACC as a whole this year has been strong, with 10 teams in the top 50 of KenPom’s ratings. What do you make of the conference this season?
Pete Gillen: It’s a great conference again. Last year, they got nine teams into the NCAA Tournament which is unbelievable. This year, I think seven or eight are capable, though certainly there’s still a ton of basketball to be played yet since we’re just about at the halfway mark in conference play. Teams like Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, and N.C. State are on the cusp, they could make it, but they have some work to do.
Teams like Duke, North Carolina, Virginia, Louisville, Miami, Clemson and Florida State have a great chance to get in unless they stub their toe down the stretch. The question marks are Virginia Tech, Notre Dame and N.C. State. It’s a great league, but I don’t think it’s quite as strong as it was last year because the weaker teams at the bottom are dragging it down just a little bit.
CBS Local Sports: Duke added top recruit Zion Williamson to their 2018 class last weekend, giving them four of the top eight prospects according to 247 Sports rankings. Has Duke passed Kentucky in terms of a being a destination for top recruits?
Pete Gillen: I definitely think so. What they’re doing is just off the charts. To get, in some circles, people say they have the top three recruits in the country, which is debatable of course, but that’s never been done before. It’s unbelievable to have that many great players. Coach K, at 70 years old, being able to do this with his staff is incredible. Duke is an unbelievable program and I think Coach K being the head of USA Basketball for a long time and working with the pro guys was a nice addition to his resume. Winning the Olympics a few times, the ACC is a phenomenal league, and Duke is a great school academically so they’ve got all the boxes checked as it were. Coach K jumped into that pool of the “one-and-done”, and he’s swimming real great right now.
CBS Local Sports: Final question for you, looking nationally, which team or teams are we not talking about this season?
Pete Gillen: Well, I would say Nevada, from the Mountain West Conference. They’re out west so they don’t always get the publicity that they deserve. Bill Musselman has done a phenomenal coaching job there. They’re a team that could certainly make the NCAA Tournament and do some serious damage.
The Mountain West in general is a little bit stronger this year. A team like Boise State, has a chance, if they get in, to do some damage though they still have work to do in order to get in.
Cincinnati is another team. They’re in the Top 10 now, but they’re kind of like a silent partner in the law firm. They play great defense, offensively they’re much bettr and they’re a veteran team. Those three teams are ones that should get more recognition.