What: College Basketball Armageddon 2011, Part I
Where: Danny Green Court at Hansbrough Indoor Stadium, Durham, NC
TV: ACC Network/Raycom/ESPN
Records: UNC 17-5, 7-1 ACC; Duke 21-2, 8-1 ACC
There was a point in the season, as recently as two weeks ago, that this was considered a sure fire loss for UNC. After a tough win at Miami the questions about UNC were still strong enough to fuel a fair amount of Duke love. Then UNC went on a tear dropping three straight ACC opponents by 20 points or more. The offense was cooking and with the departure of Larry Drew bringing Kendall Marshall to the forefront the Heels dismantled an FSU team with a highly ranked defense and a win over Duke to their credit. In the meantime Duke lost some of its invincibility with a blowout loss at St. John's. The Blue Devils recovered to beat Maryland and NC State in impressive fashion setting up a matchup with the Heels that has become standard fare in the rivalry.
The most intriguing part of this game are the match-ups. UNC's interior play versus Duke's lack of it. Harrison Barnes vs Kyle Singler. Dexter Strickland guarding Nolan Smith. Questions abound as to how UNC will handle Duke's perimeter shooting? What can Duke do to slow down UNC's inside game? How will Kendall Marshall handle the harassing Blue Devil defense and overplays? Which bench will make the bigger contribution and could that be the big difference?
Starting with Duke's perimeter shooting, to some extent the Blue Devils are going to hit their share of threes barring an off night which generally does not happen in home games. UNC's defense has always been a little suspect in dealing with teams who space well and get open looks from three. This will likely be the case here meaning slowing down Duke's three point shooting is going to be exceedingly difficult. That leaves UNC hoping for some off shooting and controlling the defensive glass. Duke gets a lot of good looks off the offensive board whether it is kick outs for threes or Kyle Singler or one of the Plumlees scoring on putbacks. Duke shoots the ball well enough that giving them extra shots is almost certainly a recipe for disaster.
Another aspect of slowing Duke's offense now is not allowing the supporting cast outside of Smith and Singler to beat you. Looking at the two Duke losses, one common thread is evident. In both games only Smith and Singler scored in double figures. Neither shot all that well in the two losses save Smith's 10-19 versus St. John's. However there is an element of "they will get their points" with this pair. Having these two hit their averages is not necessarily enough to beat you but allowing that and players like Andre Dawkins, Seth Curry, Ryan Kelly or heaven forbid the offensively challenged Plumlees to put up points will doom you. That is where the loss of Kyrie Irving hurts Duke. With Irving, Duke had three solid offensive options. Not that Dawkins or Curry do not give you offense but there is a definite difference. The crux of the UNC defense will be ensuring the supporting cast does not inflict major damage.
On the offensive end UNC will have its hands full with a Duke defense that is very aggressive. This is where Kendall Marshall is going to have to make a big adjustment to his game. Marshall operates so much on instinct and with a incredible vision of the court. With the way Duke plays defense some openings he might think are there might not be there. Duke will also work to keep the ball out of his hands and force Dexter Strickland into being more the point guard even if Marshall is on the floor. That puts pressure on Strickland to make good decisions. It also means Marshall may have opportunities to hit some open threes if he can make himself available. For UNC however the offense is going to begin with Tyler Zeller and John Henson simply because Duke cannot match them on the interior. Working the ball inside and racking up some fouls could really open up things.
In this game the bench play really could be an X factor, especially for UNC. Justin Knox has been really good off the bench. Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald are very capable of making outside shots to change the complexion of the game. UNC really needs the top eight players to bring their best game to reduce the margin of error. In other words, I think UNC's offense has to be top notch simply because Duke is going to get points. UNC can mitigate some of that but the Blue Devil three point shooting is what it is so it could be on the offense to keep UNC in the game.
UNC has a legitimate shot to win this game assuming a lot of things go right. All that being said, I am going to go with the overly cautious to the point of pessimism in this one. I think Duke wins which would be nice for them since they presently have no wins over teams ranked in the top 25.
Duke 77 UNC 71