Blue Devils look to avenge another loss in Sweet 16 matchup

Virginia Tech, one of four teams to beat Duke this season, is up next for the tournament’s top seed

RJ Barrett and Duke took care of business against North Dakota State and survived Central Florida to advance to the Sweet 16. (Richard Shiro / AP Photo)

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Four teams have beaten Duke this season. The Blue Devils have gotten revenge against two of them — Syracuse and North Carolina — with wins in the ACC Tournament.

Gonzaga, a fellow one seed who topped Duke in November, could lie ahead in the Final Four, should both teams make it that far.

The fourth team — Virginia Tech — is next on the schedule for the Blue Devils.

The rematch of a 77-72 Hokies win in Blacksburg on Feb. 26 will take place in Washington, D.C., on Friday evening. Duke, the tournament’s overall top seed, will look to advance to the Elite Eight by avenging its loss to Tech, the four seed in the East which earned a date with Duke by beating St. Louis and Liberty.

Both teams will look very different this time around, as Virginia Tech and Duke were both missing their top player for the regular season game.

Duke’s Zion Williamson, the ACC Player of the Year and tournament MVP, did not play in Blacksburg, missing the second of what would be five straight games with a knee injury. 

The Blue Devils missed Williamson’s presence inside, getting a season-low seven offensive rebounds and allowing 6-foot-10 Hokie forward Kerry Blackshear to have 23 points, 10 rebounds and 11 trips to the free-throw line.

Tech’s 23 free throws on 29 attempts were both the second highest allowed by Duke this season, trailing only the season opener against Kentucky. Duke’s 58 percent free-throw rate allowed (free throws as a percentage of shot attempts allowed) was also its second worst of the year.

Duke also struggled to get its transition game on track. Without Williamson, who is second on the team in steals, the Blue Devils finished with a season-low one steal against Virginia Tech. Furthermore, Duke had to deal with the Hokies’ slow tempo. Virginia Tech’s pace of play ranks 330th in the country out of 352 Division I teams.

The Hokies were also down a man, though. Senior point guard Justin Robinson injured his foot on Jan. 30 and missed 12 straight games before returning for the start of the NCAA Tournament.

Without Robinson, the Hokies slowed their pace of play to limit opposing possessions and leaned on Blackshear and Nickeil Alexander-Walker, who scored 13 with six assists against Duke.

Coach Buzz Williams had the team ready to play with who was available, rather than worrying about who wasn’t.

“The hard way is the right way. The right way is the hard way,” Williams said after beating Duke. “When you grow up in the country, there isn’t a paved road, there is dirt. So you figure it out. What I have tried to make sure of throughout all of this is to not overly give attention to Robinson. … I think I would be doing a disservice to the mothers and fathers of the seven who have suited up this month if I didn’t make sure that our program was giving our best effort to the players who did put on a uniform. That doesn’t mean we love Robinson less, but it doesn’t mean we love the guys who are playing more.”

Now Robinson is back and working his way into the rotation of players who did well without him. The pace hasn’t sped up — yet — and Robinson has been coming off the bench thus far.

He scored nine points in 27 minutes against St. Louis. “I thought my wind was going to be way worse than it was,” he said afterward.

He returned two days later to add 13 points in 29 minutes.

“I’m so excited for him,” Williams said. “To miss 12 games as the all-time leader in assists, and there was never any assurance that he was going to be able to play again. Obviously, we were all hoping that, but he hasn’t played since January. And for him to be able to come back on this stage and obviously be a part of winning on Friday and then to continue our season, just thankful.”

The Hokies are surely eager to show that their win over Duke doesn’t deserve an asterisk just because Williamson was out.

“He’s a really great player,” Blackshear said. “They’re a really great team. With or without him, they got five really good guys on the floor. And we got J. Rob back, so that does so much for our team. We’re excited to have an opportunity to play them again.”

If Duke gets past the Hokies, the Blue Devils will play the winner of No. 2 Michigan State and No. 3 LSU. The Spartans are a familiar foe for Duke and, based on history, a welcome one. Krzyzewski is 11-1 against MSU head coach Tom Izzo, including seven straight wins dating back to 2005.

LSU was the SEC regular season champion but is playing without a coach as Will Wade was suspended late in the season.