Jalen Johnson had zero to do with Duke's biggest win of the Blue Devils' season. I mean that in a literal but also metaphorical or spiritual or karmic sense. However you want to slice it. Duke has, to this point, proven to be better without Johnson, who left the team earlier this week to prepare for the NBA Draft. It's now 5-0 this season in games when he hasn't played.
But his defection from the team is not the story from Saturday night.
Duke barely held at home to upset No. 7 Virginia 66-65 and take its most important victory in almost a year's time. Duke improved to 11-8, took its third consecutive win and needs to be back in the bubble conversation.
The win was critical; a loss would have effectively ended Duke's hopes of being an at-large team. Instead, it's now moved into the conversation the same way Wichita State moved into the conversation earlier this week thanks to its home win over a top-10 team in Houston.
That's the story here. The sooner we can all put the Jalen Johnson melodrama behind us, the better. With Duke it's always something, and until a few days ago that something was the fact this team was headed toward its first non-NCAA Tournament season in two and a half decades. Then Johnson packed up his things, left the team and suddenly there was a new reason to brew even more takes on Duke.
There was a lot of noise -- probably more than Johnson or anyone at Duke could have anticipated -- regarding his decision to leave the team and pursue his NBA career. He wasn't logging meaningful minutes, and more, he apparently still has a serious enough foot issue that Mike Krzyzewski made sure to bring it up in a prepared statement earlier this week.
The hot-takers (you too, Jim Boeheim?) will make what they will of this Duke win and three straight now without Johnson either on the team or factoring in much. Maybe one more spin around the carousel on that before we can move on to the next thing. But for those who watched Saturday night, they saw a Duke team take body blows with Virginia, trade big shots and look more composed for 40 minutes than in any other game against a good opponent this season.
It was Duke's first win over a ranked team this year, too.
Had Kihei Clark not lost his dribble in the closing seconds, maybe he launches a 3-point attempt that is still short but there's another second on the clock and Jay Huff catches the air ball and dunks it right before the buzzer. If that happens, Duke's season caroms the other direction. These two teams have built a habit of keeping it close: five of their past seven games have been decided by one or two points.
But the Blue Devils tend to get it done against Virginia. They're 6-2 in their past eight meet-ups. Never was a win more desperately needed for them Durham fellas than this one.
The lion's share of the credit belongs to the player that, unlike Johnson, was expected to be Duke's true star this season: Matthew Hurt. The sophomore stretch forward sank a pair of significant second-half perimeter shots that kept Virginia from establishing a run to create an edge. He finished with 22 points and was 8 for 13 from the field including 5 for 8 3-point shooting. Hurt's casually started to emerge as one of the best players in the ACC as of late. In Duke's last three games/wins he's averaging 22.7 points and is a red-hot 14 for 19 from beyond the arc.
Hurt is the only player in the ACC who ranks top 10 in points, field goal percentage and 3-point accuracy. He ranks top-three in all of them.
Duke's NCAA Tournament chances begin with him. Maybe they end -- in a good way -- with Jaemyn Brakefield. The freshman scored 11 points and had four blocks vs. the Wahoos. Krzyzewski knows he'll need step-up freshmen for the next three weeks; Brakefield could be the breakout player.
We can't get too far ahead of ourselves with this team, though. The Blue Devils were 60th in the NET heading into Saturday night's game; they got to 55 when the rankings refreshed Sunday. This Quad 1 win now puts Duke at 2-3 against its best competition this season. It's 3-3 in the second quadrant, but that 3-2 mark in Quad 3 hovers with a wicked stench the Blue Devils won't get off their résumé. The losses there include at home to Michigan State and at Miami.
Normally late-February games for Duke carry weight because Krzyzewski is chasing yet another No. 1 seed. Here, a No. 11 or 12 is on the line. It's fascinating theater. The next showing should be soon: desperate Syracuse comes to town Monday. Boeheim will find himself hoping his theory on Jalen Johnson's value turns out to be incorrect.