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Sunday / February 26.

Take Five: Jayson Tatum Leads No. 12 Duke to 6th Straight Win with Defeat of No. 14 Virginia

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By MIKE McCURRY

Remember in late January, when Duke fell to 3-4 in the ACC after suffering its third loss in a four-game stretch, the final of which came against North Carolina State at Cameron Indoor Stadium of all places?

What a difference a few weeks (not to mention valuable practice time consisting of a finally-healed roster and Hall-of-Fame coach) makes.

On Wednesday, No. 12 Duke extended its winning streak to six games by virtue of pulling away from No. 14 Virginia on the road, 65-55.

The Blue Devils were able to withstand Amile Jefferson’s foul trouble and a collective off night from backcourt snipers Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen (the two combined to shoot 5-of-20 from the floor) due to a career-best 28-point performance from Jayson Tatum and some sound defense.

Here are five quick thoughts from Wednesday.

1.     Jayson Tatum is beginning to validate all the hype (and then some)…

Tatum flashed a penchant for scoring the minute he stepped on campus, but the silky-smooth wing didn’t always know when it was appropriate to take over and call his own number. He does now.

Tatum’s 28 points came on an uber-efficient 12 shots, with the projected Top-5 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft doing most of his damage from the midrange and behind the arc.

He connected on 6-of-7 three-pointers to continue his red-hot shooting of late. Over his last four contests, the 6-foot-8 wing has knocked down 11-of-19 (58 percent) triples—he was 14-of-48 (29 percent) from distance on the season entering this stretch.

Also, from here on out, let it be known that the game sequence is as follows: First Half, halftime, Tatum’s Half.

Between last week’s win over UNC and Wednesday’s win over Virginia, Tatum has scored 40 points on 12-of-21 shooting (including 7-of-10 on 3’s) after halftime in a combined 39 minutes of action.

As if Duke needed another Alpha Dog… 

2.     Duke is again excelling with a “small-ball” lineup…

 I’d be remiss if I didn’t add that Tatum’s ascension has mostly coincided with him sliding from the small forward spot to the “4.”

It’s mid-February, so it should be obvious by now that the Blue Devils’ on-floor lineup normally consists of Tatum, Kennard, Allen, and Jefferson. The fifth member of that set has fluctuated at times over the course of the year, but Matt Jones is that guy more often than not.

And rightfully so—Jones is one of the best on-ball defenders in America, as London Perrantes (14 points, 4-of-11 shooting, 3 turnovers) and other Cavaliers learned firsthand on Wednesday, and the senior captain is also a career 37 percent three-point shooter.

When the Jones/Allen/Kennard trio is on the court together, Tatum is able to enjoy life at the power forward spot, where he’ll commonly find offensive mismatches begging to be exploited.

Poor Isaiah Wilkins became the latest victim of those mismatches, as Wilkins simply isn’t accustomed to his adversary possessing the combination of burst, ball-handling skills, and shooting stroke that Tatum does.

Defensively, Tatum assuming the power forward position doesn’t hurt the Blue Devils—at least it hasn’t yet—as he’s a borderline elite defensive rebounder (averaging 8.8 total boards in his past five games) and an underrated all-around defensive presence.

If this Mike Krzyzewski tactic sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because it is.

Coach K slid Justise Winslow from the “3” to the “4” back in the 2014-15 campaign, a decision that resulted in excessive net-cutting.

3.     Virginia’s offensive margin for error is very slim…

On the rare occasions that Virginia’s Pack Line defense is not stifling opponents—and it hasn’t the last two games, with Virginia Tech making 55 percent of its twos on Sunday and Duke making 47 percent of its threes on Wednesday—the Cavaliers offense needs to be nearly flawless.

For the second straight contest (and loss), it wasn’t. Using Offensive Rating—an estimate of a team’s number of points scored per 100 possessions—two of Virginia’s five worst offensive showings of the year have come in a four-day span.

So what’s the problem, and how does head coach Tony Bennett quickly solve it?

The simple answer is that UVA lacks a second consistent offensive weapon behind Perrantes.

Marial Shayok takes too many two-point jumpers. Wilkins has followed up a five-game stretch in which he put up 12.4 points per night with 9 combined points in his past two contests. Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome are only freshmen, and most of their attempts come from behind the arc anyway.

Austin Nichols was supposed to fill that role, but he was booted off the team after one game.

It must be especially frustrating for Virginia fans to look across the court and see the embarrassment of offensive riches that Duke owns.

“Any given night, we have guys on this team that can explode on offense,” Tatum said on SportsCenter postgame.

To Bennett and UVA, Tatum’s statement may as well be conveyed in a foreign language. 

4.     And it’s not about to get any easier for UVA this weekend…

On Saturday, Virginia looks to avoid its first three-game losing streak since the 2010-2011 season. But it won’t be easy, as the Hoos travel to Chapel Hill to take on the ACC’s first-place UNC Tar Heels.

This is a critical juncture for the Cavaliers, who just weeks ago were controlling the game against then-No. 1 Villanova in Philadelphia before eventually collapsing late in that affair and dropping four of their last six overall.

5.     It might not be long before Duke is considered the team to beat nationally…

The preseason favorites, which also happen to boast the most talented roster in the country, have reeled off six straight victories in rather impressive fashion.

Don’t be surprised to see Duke do the same thing in the NCAA Tournament, which would culminate in Krzyzewski’s sixth national championship.

Again, consider what transpired on Wednesday. Jefferson was limited to 21 minutes while battling foul trouble. Kennard and Allen shot a combined 25 percent from the field. And Duke still hung 44 on Virginia in the second half, scoring 1.42 points-per-trip during the latter frame at a venue where no ACC foe emerges as the victor.

The Blue Devils might finally be who we thought they were all along.

“Coming into the season, we kind of believed the hype of what the media and what everybody said we were going to be, and it kind of hurt us,” Tatum said. “And we learned from it. We’ve been thru a lot of adversity with guys being hurt and Coach being out, losing three of those four games that we did, and it’s really brought us together. It’s showed these last six games that we’ve won.”

Photo: @DukeMBB

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