UNC lost 92-90 to Duke in overtime on February 18th in what was a highly competitive game that lived up to all the hype. However it also ended in brutal fashion for the Tar Heels as a ten point lead inside of four minutes slipped away. With one game in the books what are the factors in the rematch?
1. Which half in Durham will UNC play like?
The Tar Heels got off to a terrible start while Duke seemingly couldn't miss. The first half was very much a mix of Duke riding the home court advantage while the Tar Heels shrunk back from the opening barrage. In short, the Tar Heels were rattled early. This led to poor shots on the offensive end and costly mistakes on defense leading to wide open three points which Duke buried.
Towards the end of the first half and for most of the second half, the Tar Heels figured out how to compete with Duke. The transition game was humming, the defense improved enough and the Tar Heel big men were productive. Everything was going swimmingly until the final two minutes when the Tar Heels failed to come up with any one of seven plays that would have effectively sealed the game.
Playing at home, UNC obviously needs to come out and play a full forty minutes similar to the second half in Durham. The Tar Heels also need to avoid some of the slower starts at home such as the ones seen versus NC State, Notre Dame and Iowa. Those losses were characterized with a poor offensive showing out of the gate that required a furious rally. UNC can't afford a poor shooting night from the tip nor allow Duke to have a great one on the road.
2. Tar Heel freshman impact
In the first game, UNC did not get much out of the three freshman. Theo Pinson was injured, Justin Jackson looked completely out of sorts with the spotlight on and Joel Berry was a non-factor. Since then Berry seems to have clicked with his playing time going up and taking minutes away from Nate Britt. Berry hit a crucial three versus Miami and then knocked down three from beyond the arc against Georgia Tech. Getting a similar effort from him will give the Duke defense something else to worry about instead of focusing all attention on Marcus Paige. Likewise, Jackson will need to step up his play after being shell shocked in Durham by showing the ability to make an outside shot and also doing what he does best which is produce in the mid-range game.
The real X factor among the freshmen is Pinson. He is a high energy player who bring intensity and focus on the defensive end. In terms of attitude, Pinson loves the spotlight and undoubtedly has been looking forward to playing in this game possibly above all others. The question is how much can he give in just his second game back and how much will Roy Williams play him? Assuming he gets double digit minutes, he is the type of player who can make an impact, especially on the defensive end.
3. Paging Marcus Paige
Marcus Paige's offensive numbers in the first game versus Duke were some of his worst since his freshman season. His offensive rating of 57 was the lowest since 2013. On the evening Paige scored 5 points and shot 2-11, 1-3 from three with 3 assists and 2 TOs. He also missed the game winning shot/missed an open Brice Johnson on the block at the end of regulation. Clearly a key to Duke's defensive game plan was to stop Paige from beating them. It almost backfired as the Tar Heels got significant contributions from almost everyone else but couldn't get one or two shots to fall for Paige.
It stands to reason that Duke will deploy similar defensive attention on Paige. The key for UNC is finding ways to get Paige open and assuming Paige can get open looks, he has to knock them down with regularity. While there is a perception that Paige hasn't played well this season, his numbers in ACC play have been fairly good. His offensive rating in ACC games is 120.3 while averaging 12.9 ppg and dishing out 4.8 apg. Paige's shooting numbers have also been very good hitting 40% of his threes, 47% of his twos and 88% at the free throw line.
In short, Paige is still very capable of putting up that "big game." This season has seen him be far less consistent and the raised level of production from other players is certainly a factor. That being said, Paige hasn't really had the kind of where he basically took over and pushed UNC to a win with the possible exception being the win at NC State. UNC has shown the ability to get balanced scoring and compete without Paige but syncing junior guard up with everyone else takes this team to a different level.
4. Revenge and 2nd Duke Game
In 2012, UNC lost to Duke in Chapel Hill in a fashion remarkably similar to the way the 2015 Tar Heels lost at Duke. In the return game in Durham, the Tar Heels were scary focused and throttled Duke in impressive fashion. The caveat here is that the 2012 team was really good and also better than the 2012 Blue Devils. Still, it would be highly disappointing if the current Tar Heels don't show up spitting mad and ready to take it to Duke given what happened a little over two weeks ago.
The other element at play is UNC always plays Duke better in the return game. Under Williams, the Tar Heels are 7-4 in the second game versus Duke and 4-1 in Chapel Hill when the game is the regular season finale. The Heels are also 5-3 in the Williams era in the second game after losing the first game. There is something to be said for how UNC has historically responded to playing Duke after the Blue Devils one the first meeting.
5. The crowd
Following UNC's home win versus Georgia Tech on February 21st, Roy Williams chastised the crowed for not being a factor. In the following game versus NC State on February 24th, the Smith Center crowd responded to Williams' plea by creating a raucous environment only to see the Tar Heels play poorly and lose to the Wolfpack.
When it comes to the Duke game, the crowd is always a factor and it generally is the one game you can count on the entire Smith Center crowd to be active for the full length of the game. It will also be Senior Night which raises the emotional level quite a bit.
Given what the crowd showed versus NC State and the fact this is a 9 PM game on a Saturday night, College Game Day is in town and there is plenty of time to ramp up to opening tip, the crowd should be on another level. Duke is a well-coached team that has gone into tough venues all season and won games. That means they are less likely to be rattled but in a game of this importance, UNC needs every ounce of help it can get.