It is difficult to be too upset about this outside the normal rage you might feel from losing to Duke and watching the freaking Crazies leave Hansbrough Indoor Stadium happy. Am I claiming a moral victory? Depends on your definition of moral victory I suppose. It was a tough loss versus a good team in a notoriously tough environment. I would have rather UNC won the game. However in losing it is clear they have the right makeup to continue their upward trend. The loss is a negative but in the bigger picture of the season it could very well be a positive if the Heels learn from it and adjust for the mistakes they made. The lessons learned in Durham might mean a win in a more crucial game down the road.
Now onto the analysis.
In terms of the game itself, UNC clearly won the first half. The Heels did everything they were supposed to do. Kendall Marshall got into the lane as often as he wanted. Tyler Zeller and John Henson dominated the interior and controlled the boards. UNC did not get any perimeter shooting because they did not need to simply because the inside was open so often. In the second half Duke made adjustments, turned up their defensive intensity and started hitting shots. Duke also evened up the rebounding, mostly on the offensive end which gave then numerous second chances. Nolan Smith did what senior All-Americans do when playing at home versus a rival. He took the game over and UNC could do precious little about it. Dexter Strickland was saddled with three first half fouls which impeded his ability to stay on the floor and guard Smith. That left it up to Marshall who overmatched. Roy Williams also tried Reggie Bullock and Leslie McDonald as well but no one could really stop Smith from scoring or getting into the lane then dishing. I said after Larry Drew left there would be moments when UNC would need his defense. This was one of those moments. Yes, UNC is ultimately better without Drew because of what Marshall does for the Tar Heel offense. Also, UNC will not face a player like Smith that often nor will Strickland end up in foul trouble like that(hopefully) even if they do. It is a shortcoming for UNC but one that rarely rears its head. Plus there are certain things we are willing to live with and this is one of them.
Of course Smith scoring 35 points was a problem but then again it could have been less of one had Seth Curry not started rolling. Harrison Barnes did an outstanding job guarding Kyle Singler. In fact Barnes was so focused on the defensive end I think his offense suffered or he was simply worn out. In that respect UNC got what it needed, Singler frustrated and unproductive. What really hurt UNC was Seth Curry's stat line of 22 points, 5 assists and 6 rebounds. Four of those boards were on the offensive end which was a killer in the 2nd half. Duke ended up with 15 offensive boards and 12 of them came in the 2nd half. UNC still won the boards 47-41 but the number of times Duke was able to extend possessions in the 2nd half hurt.
What went well for UNC? Tyler Zeller played one of his best games, mostly in the first half when the interior game was open. UNC inability to hit threes caused the Duke defense to sag more in the 2nd half and there were fewer looks in the paint. Still, Zeller and Henson both did what they were supposed to do in terms of owning the blocks. Zeller led UNC with 24 points and 13 rebounds. Henson had 14 points and 12 boards. Outside of those two the play from Harrison Barnes was uneven on offense but I really think the stellar job he did on defense caused that. I really loved Barnes' approach to the game and he looked like he was having fun out there. Barnes had nine points and six rebounds when UNC really needed more from him on offense. With only eight FG attempts and three free throws, it is difficult to generate points. Again, Barnes did the job on defense but when UNC needed a scorer he just wasn't there and that made a difference.
Marshall's game was interesting. The stat line was decent with nine points, six assists, two steals and only a single turnover. The part of his line that hurt UNC was the 3-11 from the floor and 3-6 at the FT line. Duke turned Marshall into a shooter and he could not convert those chances. Most of the shots he got were good looks and at the end of the game Marshall was simply trying to do too much by himself. It is imperative that Marshall become more of a scoring threat to at least keep defenses honest. I am not saying he needs to take 10-12 shots per game but if he shows he can make shots, it will cause defense to honor that part of his game. Had Marshall been 4-7 in the first half then Duke probably starts helping more on him and opening up passing lanes. Instead Marshall was 1-7 despite getting to the basket several times.
Overall there is more good than bad. Duke is a good team. I know there is evidence Duke has not really beaten anyone significant. They have now. This game was ultimately determined by a senior guard making plays and a young offense and defense that simply couldn't make enough of them. Still, I never got the impression UNC was ever rattled outside maybe Bullock who was just a wee bit too enthusiastic out there. Marshall and Barnes played as though the environment did not bother them. That was also the case with the other Tar Heels on the floor.
As I said on the game thread, if this game is a close game the perception of both teams will largely be unchanged regardless of who actually wins with the exception that UNC probably gets a bump. Seeing how the first half went I think UNC gets more than a bump in terms of perception. UNC proved they play with a top ten team as they did versus Texas in Greensboro. It stands to reason they will only get better from here as I do not see this sort of game to be the kind of loss that would shake their confidence. The most important thing now is beating Clemson on the road so this does not turn into a losing streak. This is one battle in a long season and to quote Dexter Strickland a few minutes ago:
Not hanging our heads at all..We'll play them again.
24 days and counting...