Thankfully, the Duke hype has died down in recent weeks. It was absolutely brutal at the beginning of the season, with all the talk of repeating as champions, an undefeated season, and Krzyzewski's climb up the win total list for coaches. Duke's two losses have kind of put a stop to that; everyone's moved on to chatter about Ohio State, Texas, Kansas and Jimmer Fredette. And yes, a fair amount of ink has been spilled about the Tar Heels in the last few days as well. The Blue Devils are old news, fifteen point losers to St. John's. Folks have moved on.
Of course, Duke has two fewer losses than they did at this point last season, and it was about this time a year ago that they clicked as a team and won eighteen of their final nineteen games en route to the national championship. This year's Blue Devils only lost three players from that team, and replaced them with a highly touted freshman class. They're still a very dangerous team. So what's changed?
First of all, Duke has turned up the tempo on offense. They average a full six more possessions a game than they did in 2010, and they've done it without getting sloppy, as they still have one of the lowest turnover rates in college basketball. They shoot even better as a team than they did last season. But they do feel the absence of their graduating players.
Last season's offense was run almost exclusive through three players – Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler, and Jon Scheyer. All three played more than 84% of the available minutes, and took over 24% of the shots apiece when they were on the floor. Smith and Singler each took more than twice the shots of anyone else on the team outside of Scheyer, and it was the rare game when less than two of the trio weren't having great shooting nights. And now with Scheyer gone, most of that slack is being taken up by... Smith and Singler. Their minutes have gone down slightly – the pace is faster, and the team somewhat deeper – but they're taking more shots, with both now responsible for over 27% of Duke's attempts. What shots of Scheyer's they aren't taking are being spread around a trio of supporting players, who all kind of shift into the Lance Thomas role when need be.
Where Duke has regressed has been on the offensive boards. Last season, they could rely on Brian Zoubek to do one thing well, and that was pull down missed shots and find one of the three shooters to toss it back at the bucket. It was incredibly hard to defend, because it was such a rarity; a big man who wouldn't go back up with the ball, but instead find a perimeter shooter unguarded. In the end, I think only Butler found a defense that worked on that. Zoubek's role is now filled by Mason Plumlee, the younger of the two brothers, who rebounds less and shoots more, but is still prone to feed the guards more often than not. Crashing the boards after missed Duke shots is critical to beating the Blue Devils, and here UNC has a good chance of succeeding. Mason and his brother Miles Plumlee have both struggled this season against strong frontcourts like Florida State's and Maryland's, and the trio of Zeller, Henson, and Knox should give them fits.
As for the rest of the Duke players, we're all familiar with what they do at this point. Singler, despite being 6'8" will spend most of his time on the wing, and shoot threes about 40% of the time. Ryan Kelly will try to do the same, as another big man who will rarely venture in to the post, while Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins are primarily three point specialists. Dawkins the better shooter, and also smarter about picking the right moments to head for the basket instead, but there's not much daylight between them. Expect lots of perimeter screens and quick threes, and when things get dicey, Nolan Smith to try to carry the offense single-handedly, with considerably more dribble penetration than the rest of the team displays.
Defensively, of course, the Blue Devils have few flaws. They're the seventh most efficient defense in the country; FSU was 2nd until the Tar Heels put 89 points up on them, and Carolina themselves are eighth in that category. Duke's defense is swarming, hand check prone, and focused on disrupting outside shots. Typically their opponents shoot very few threes, both this season and last, and prefer to try their luck inside. You'd might expect UNC to do the same, considering they took all of five threes on their last trip to Cameron, but I don't think so. Kendall Marshall excels at finding open shooters on the perimeter, and Harrison Barnes as perfected a quick catch-and-shoot; expect the Heels to take their share of threes. And they'll have to fall, as Mason Plumlee's best statistical category is defensive rebounding. Getting him and Duke's other big men in foul trouble early will do a lot to disrupt the Blue Devils. Carolina can also go small and quick should Duke flood the floor with small forwards, and Zeller and Henson both excel at running the floor.
It's only been two years since Tyler Hansbrough and company capped off a four-year run of owning Duke on their own court. Now, with last week's sudden exit, there's no one on the Carolina roster who played in Cameron and won. Both these teams are young and playing near-perfect basketball right now; we're almost guaranteed a good game. And one that should come down to a Tar Heel win. Yes they're less experienced, but also harder to prepare for. If Marshall's performance wasn't a one-game fluke but a display of the type of game he can play in Durham, UNC can definitely return to the top of Hansbrough Indoor.