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Game Preview: #8 UNC at #17 Duke

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

North Carolina at Duke, 6:30 PM, ESPN

UNC heads to Durham looking for redemption and the #1 seed in the ACC Tournament.  Here are the focal points.


Much like 2012, UNC heads into a game at Cameron having dropped game the Tar Heels probably should have won. In 2012 it was the Austin Rivers shot that capped off an improbable sequence of events for Duke to steal a game in the Dean Smith Center. A little over two weeks it didn't unfold quite that way but UNC did lead 68-60 before giving up a 14-5 run that resulted in a loss. Brice Johnson, who had been dominant for the first 30 minutes was not a factor down the stretch and the combination of Joel Berry and Marcus Paige shot 4-22.

When UNC lost in 2012, that team came into Cameron with the look of a focused and angry team. The normally mild mannered Tyler Zeller had the look of someone who was ready to destroy people. The Tar Heels jumped out to a huge lead in that game and doubled Duke up by halftime 48-24. Duke made a run but it was not enough to get back into the game as UNC clinched a second straight ACC regular season title.

The notable difference between this team and the 2012 group is the latter had four NBA lottery picks and seven players who ended up in the NBA. This team doesn't have quite that talent level but has shown signs that when it is clicking, they can blow good teams out of the building. The nagging question with this group is can they apply that kind of complete game effort in a game like this? Guess we will find out.

Balance the offense

It is a given UNC is going to go into the paint early and often. Brice Johnson dominated the offensive glass and is a tough cover for Brandon Ingram and Marshall Plumlee. The Tar Heels will also need to get production from Kennedy Meeks and Isiah Hicks to establish an inside presence.  There is little reason why UNC shouldn't produce consistently in the post.

That being said, UNC still needs production from the backcourt. Justin Jackson scored 13 points in the first game and has been in double figures in seven straight games and is a match-up problem for Duke just as much as Grayson Allen or Brandon Ingram is for the Tar Heels. UNC will need Joel Berry and Marcus Paige to hit shots.  While much attention is given to the fact Johnson didn't get more shots down the stretch during the loss in Chapel Hill, had Berry and Paige hit shots it wouldn't have mattered.  Perimeter shots also makes it more difficult to put all the focus on clogging up the lane. In the game before and after playing Duke, UNC showed what it could do with all cylinders firing. Winning tonight will require just that.

Duke's legs and the early storm

When Duke beat UNC in Chapel Hill it capped off a three game winning streak for the Blue Devils against ranked teams. That play carried over through the first half of the subsequent game at Louisville before the Blue Devils tank ran dry. Since then Duke has not played well. They handled FSU by 15 but struggled to shoot the ball early in that contest. Pitt blew the Devils out the following Sunday and Tuesday's game versus Wake Forest was much closer than expected.  The pressing question is Duke's limiting rotation feeling the cumulative effects of the season? It's possible and certainly something the deeper Tar Heels can hope to exploit as this game unfolds.

Before the game reaches that point UNC might need to endure an early storm from Duke. Much like what NC State did in UNC's trip to Raleigh, it would not be surprising if Duke opened the game with a flurry. If that happens, UNC simply needs to keep composure and wait it out knowing that is not something that will last the entire game. UNC has the depth and is the better defensive team so should UNC play at a level its capable of, the Tar Heels should walk away with a win.

UNC 87 Duke 79