Harrison Barnes is fouled as he makes the basket while Seth Curry and Nolan Smith of Duke watch on during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on February 9th.
It's rare that the final game against Duke is so cut and dry. Win, and the Heels are the regular season ACC champs. Lose, and Duke is. By the way – Duke fans now apparently care about the regular season championship. It wasn't too long ago that they insisted the regular season championship wasn't one at all; the ACC only awards a trophy to the winner of the tournament, so that is the only champion, and the folks at the Dean Dome are a bunch of philistines for hanging up banners saying otherwise. I'm not sure when that view changed over in Durham, but apparently it has.
The talk coming into this game as focused heavily on the matchup between Harrison Barnes and Kyle Singler, which was notable in the first game for how little effect it had on the game. Singler would finish with ten points, and Barnes nine; they each had only three baskets from the field. The two neutralized each other with some stellar defensive play, but the difference has been in the games since. Singler has been in a bit of a slump, especially from behind the arc where he's shot 4 for 20. He's getting more of his points inside or from the line, while Barnes is taking on a greater role in UNC's offense, shooting better and scoring more than his Duke counterpart.
That being said, the Singler/Barnes matchup isn't going to be what this game revolves around. Of greater concern is the play at the point. Mike Krzyzewski made a point of emphasizing after the game that he had instructed his team do not double team Kendall Marshall's drives into the lane, forcing him to finish his shot. Marshall would shoot 3 of 11 for the night, but still record six assists. More importantly, since that game he has apparently taken that plan as a personal affront, shooting 16 for 33 inside the arc. He's still prone to be hesitant with his shot at time, but not to the extent he was coming into Cameron, which could change the balance a bit.
At the other point position, meanwhile, Krzyzewski has transitioned some of the point guard duties from Nolan Smith, who was always a better shooter than a passer, to Seth Curry, who has upped both his playing time and his assist totals in recent weeks. The result is that Smith is making more perimeter shots, while Curry is keeping the Duke turnovers more manageable. Smith in particular is turnover prone, coughing the ball up eight times in his Senior Day win over Clemson. Smith isn't prone to dish to any of the Blue Devil bigs once he enters the lane – the ball is either going towards the hoop or back out to a perimeter shooter, so Henson and company should be free to collapse and alter a lot of shots. The only risk in this is in giving up offensive rebounds, as Duke pulled down 15, although a lot of those came from perimeter players chasing down long misses. If the Heels can limit Duke to one shot per possession, as they did quite well in the first half of the previous meeting, they should be in good shape.
On offense, Duke still doesn't have much of answer for Zeller and Henson. The pair had over half of UNC's points that game, but what the Blue Devils were successful at was keeping all of their post players out of foul trouble. If Carolina comes harder at them inside, that could change, and limiting the minutes of their starters weakens the team's rebounding ability greatly.
Of course, Krzyzewski is doing a good job of limiting the effectiveness of his bench already, mostly by keeping them off the court. His four bench players are averaging a little over 10 minutes a game – although half the games have only seen three bench players – which is better than it's been in the past, but still not great. Only Malcolm Delaney has more minutes in ACC play than Smith and Singler, and Smith hasn't had a rest in two games. So foul trouble definitely works to UNC's advantage here, as the bench just doesn't see that much court time.
In the end, I think this game is going Carolina's way, but I think most of them will. UNC is comfortable in their own house, and even though this isn't the swan song for players we've been following for years – the senior class consists of Justin Knox and a some members of Blue Steel – it is the cap to a turbulent season and a long craw back from the depths of last year. The Heels should be able to cap it off with a win and head in the tournament playing some of their best basketball of the year.
This is the last of the sponsored previews, so we bid a not-at-all fond farewell to the big block o' legal text. Ask me nicely on Twitter and I'll share my feelings on the beer, the television ads, and what I plan to do with my share of the filthy, filthy lucre we're getting for this.
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