Duke's 3-0 start to ACC play came against a trio of teams in Notre Dame, Boston College and Wake Forest that entered the week with a combined 0-12 record in league play. So as the No. 20 Blue Devils prepared to play at No. 19 Virginia Tech on Tuesday night, it was clear they would be facing their biggest test since losses to Michigan State and Illinois in early December.
The Hokies lived up to their billing and sent Duke to its first defeat of league play with 74-67 victory that proved their legitimacy in a conference still looking for a clear favorite. But as solid as Virginia Tech (10-2, 4-1 ACC) looked in opening up a double-digit first half lead, the win may carry an asterisk in the minds of some Duke fans because of Jalen Johnson's limited availability.
Johnson, a 6-foot-9 freshman, returned from the foot injury that has kept him out of Duke's last three games but played just four minutes as the Blue Devils (5-3, 3-1) continue to ease him back to a full workload. The Milwaukee native was considered the No. 13 overall prospect in the Class of 2020 by the 247Sports Composite and averaged 11.5 points and 8.3 rebounds while shooting 54.3% from the field in his first four games. The Blue Devils got by fine without him against lesser foes but could never claw back from an 18-point deficit on Tuesday, despite a combined 42 points from Jeremy Roach and Matthew Hurt.
Virginia Tech has no one nearing Johnson's recruiting accolades on its roster, but the Hokies are continuing to impress under second-year coach Mike Young. They started last season 4-2 in ACC play before fading and finishing 7-13 in league play and probably still have some doubters after they were picked to finish 11th in the league this year. But an 81-73 win over No. 3 Villanova on Nov. 28 suggested the Hokies had made a jump with a strong nucleus of sophomores back for their second year of the program, and their strong start to conference play has confirmed it.
Sophomore guard Tyrece Radford led Virginia Tech with 18 points against Duke while leading scorer Keve Aluma, who followed Young from Wofford to Virginia Tech as a transfer, pitched in 17. Virginia Tech is next scheduled to play Sunday at Wake Forest, while Duke is scheduled to be off until playing at Pittsburgh next Tuesday.