USA TODAY Sports
Dexter Strickland's final home game as a Tar Heel.
North Carolina(22-8, 12-5 ACC) vs Duke(26-4, 13-4 ACC), 9:00 PM, ESPN
The greatest rivalry in college basketball takes the floor again the night with a somewhat familiar story. Since Roy Williams took over in Chapel Hill, Duke has gone 8-2 in the first regular season game. As is often the case and is true this season, UNC finds a bit of a groove going through February that traditionally culminates with a win over Duke in the regular season finale. UNC is 7-2 in those games and will look to make it 8-2 tonight.
This game marks UNC's first contest against a team that has played against the smaller lineup Williams instituted prior to the first game against Duke. That means Duke will likely makes some adjustments to deal with the way UNC is playing now. Of course the technical adjustments are not nearly as important as the return of Ryan Kelly to Duke's lineup after a nearly two month absence.
In case you have been living under a rock for the last week or two, Kelly was injured in a win over Clemson on January 8th. He returned for Duke's highly important game against Miami in Durham and scored 36 points on 7-9 shooting from three. He followed that up with 18 points on Senior Night against Virginia Tech. His return has been hailed as adding the missing piece that makes Duke a title contender. It also gets noted more times than I can count, Duke is 17-0 this season with Kelly in the lineup. Never mind none of those games were played on the road though Duke did win three neutral court games versus Minnesota, VCU and Louisville.
Whatever the case, Kelly makes Duke a tougher team to guard. When P.J. Hairston moved into the starting lineup at the four, he faced Duke players who were not legitimate offensive options. Despite Hairston guarding a bigger player in Josh Hairston or Amile Jefferson, he was guarding one that wasn't apt to do much on the offensive end. With Kelly that will be different, a Hairston will need to make sure he closes out on the perimeter but battles in the post. Not many teams have opted to post Hairston up consistently but it would not surprise me if that changed in this game. Kelly's presence means helping on Mason Plumlee will be more difficult since Duke will sport legitimate scoring options at every position.
UNC's key to winning is simple. Hairston and Reggie Bullock need to be every bit as good as they were in College Park on Wednesday in terms of scoring and rebounding. In addition, James Michael McAdoo needs to have a big game. UNC has to have the three primary offensive options firing and get a solid game out of the backcourt.. UNC has benefited from turning the other team over in the six game winning streak. Even in the loss to Duke on February 13th, UNC forced 17 turnovers for a TO% of 24.3%. Duke is 4th in the country in TO% at 15.6% so repeating that kind of defense would certainly throw the Blue Devils off.
Despite winning six in a row, UNC could still use a top five win to establish themselves for a better seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Heels are 2-6 against the RPI top 50 and a win here, against the Ryan Kelly-led Blue Devils who have been deemed to be nigh impossible to stop, would certainly raise UNC's profile.
UNC 78 Duke 75