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Game Preview: #15 UNC at #4 Duke

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina at Duke, 9:00 PM, ESPN & ACC Network

UNC could really use a win here.

It's not a must win by any means but the way this game is being perceived has shifted a bit in the wake of the Tar Heels' double digit loss to Pittsburgh. UNC has lost three of four games and aside from the first halves against Virginia and Louisville, not really played well. The defense has struggled with UNC's defensive efficiency dropping to 96.5 and the DE for ACC play sitting at 106.0. What was once a strength has turned into a bit of a liability and the absence of Theo Pinson can hardly be considered a coincidence in the recent defensive struggles. Every team UNC has played since Pinson's injury has been over 100 in offensive efficiency with Pitt's 143.5 being the worst ever given up by a Roy Williams UNC team.

Against this backdrop the Tar Heels go on the road to face the nation's second most efficient offensive team in Duke. The Blue Devils shoot the ball well inside and outside the arc and have a top notch point guard in Tyus Jones who can create. The much talked about Jahlil Okafor will be a challenge defensively for the Tar Heel big men who, at times, have been a little foul prone. This is very much a "pick your poison" moment for the Tar Heel defense. Do you collapse on Okafor and attempt to contain him and risk open shooters on the perimeter or do you stay home on the perimeter and let Kennedy Meeks or whoever fend for themselves in guarding the Duke big man? The Blue Devils have four players that hit at least 36% of their threes and two(Tyus Jones and Quinn Cook) which are 39% or better. In short, there are no easy answers on the defensive end for UNC.

The upside is Duke's defense has, at times, looked like UNC's of late. If the Tar Heels can muster a consistent offensive game, keeping pace is certainly doable providing Duke doesn't get really hot from three. Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson will need to play well and it goes without saying Marcus Paige needs to do Marcus Paige things for the Tar Heels to produce offensively. However, the key for UNC is the play of the wins, particularly Justin Jackson and J.P. Tokoto. UNC is 10-1 when Jackson scores in double figures and 8-2 when Tokoto scores more than ten points. UNC is 4-1 when both score in double figures with the one loss being in overtime at Louisville. The importance of the wing production cannot be underscored enough since it takes pressure of Paige and helps UNC's overall spacing. For UNC to win in Durham, everyone has to be on the same page.

In the preseason, UNC's success was believed to hinge on getting consistent points from Kennedy Meeks and Brice Johnson, Paige being a legitimate All-American candidate and Justin Jackson and J.P. Tokoto both producing on the offensive end, especially Jackson. Meeks and Johnson have performed close to expectation while Paige has not and the wings erratic. At this stage, this feels like a team that has a confidence problem. Whether it has been the injuries, the lack of practice or the way the Louisville game unfolded, the Tar Heels have struggled to get all the parts working together at the same time.

UNC really needs a win here and not just for all the ACC and NCAA seeding ramifications but mainly for confidence's sake. The season doesn't hinge on what happens in Durham tonight. A loss doesn't necessarily mean the Tar Heels go into a tailspin or a win magically rights everything that's been wrong. However, you have to start somewhere. Last season embarked on a 12 game winning streak which started with James Michael McAdoo playing like out of his mind against Clemson. He was all over the floor on both ends and his energy pushed the Tar Heels to play well. Regardless of the result, UNC needs that kind of play tonight from someone and perhaps that can be the catalyst for the rest of the season.

UNC 77 Duke 74