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UNC vs. Duke: Three things to watch

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What to watch for during the rematch at the Smith Center

North Carolina v Duke Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

There are lots of story lines heading into the game tomorrow. The #5 North Carolina Tar Heels will host the team from Durham tomorrow evening for Senior Night and the conclusion of the ACC regular season. By around 4:00 PM Saturday, the Tar Heels will know whether or not they are the outright regular season league champions.

Thanks to our Big Four team in Winston-Salem taking down Louisville on Wednesday, the 2:00 PM game tomorrow between Louisville and Notre Dame will be a fight for the #2 seed in the ACC tournament. If the Cardinals beat the Irish, the Heels will be the outright regular season champion hours before tip-off.

Once again, College GameDay will be back in Chapel Hill Saturday, and it will be a special evening for seniors Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt, Stilman White, and Kanler Coker. Here are a few key points to watch for during the rematch against Duke.

Return to dominating the low post

With the exception of the game at Pitt, the Tar Heels have sputtered in their last couple games in the front court. Against Louisville, the Cardinals outscored the Heels in the paint, and UNC did not turn the tide in the low post until the second half. In the Virginia game, the front court was not effective offensively, with Kennedy Meeks matching his season-low of just six points and Isaiah Hicks having the same number of fouls as points and rebounds combined.

In the first meeting against Duke, the Blue Devils out-rebounded the Tar Heels. Duke was most effective in limiting the area in which Carolina succeeds and scores a lot of its points: second-chance opportunities. The Tar Heels had just seven offensive rebounds during the first game in Durham.

Needless to say, it is time for Meeks and Hicks to step up. The shocking pregame announcement of Hicks not playing due to a hamstring injury certainly did not help UNC’s efforts in the low post that night. With a healthy Hicks, the Heels have the clear advantage in the front court, but they have to contain Jayson Tatum, who at 6’-8”, has brought down a bunch of rebounds for the Blue Devils along with 6’-9” senior forward Amile Jefferson.

Perimeter defense

When looking down the stat line from the in the first game between Carolina and Duke, things were pretty equal. There was a just a tenth of a point difference in field goal percentage, a difference of just one rebound, and just two more free throw attempts by UNC.

The disparity was in the three-point department. Carolina was 4-12, shooting 33 percent from beyond the arc. Duke was 13-27, hitting over 48 percent from outside. Grayson Allen alone hit seven three-pointers. If Duke just hit their season average that night (37.6 percent from three) based on the same number of attempts, that would have been a difference of nine points. Don’t forget: the final score that night was 86-78. You do the math.

We are not at the Smith Center for practice this week, but you have to think that this will be a point of emphasis for the whole team, not just the back court. That important rebounder mentioned earlier, Jayson Tatum, was 2-6 from beyond the arc in the first game. The UNC defense will be stretched out. The answer to defending the perimeter may simply come down to effort.

Sending a message heading into tournament time

Some pundits are questioning the Tar Heels after the Virginia game and others are saying that game was more indicative of UVA’s play. When it comes down to it, you can throw all that out on a night when it is a rivalry game, Senior Night, and the ACC regular season crown is on the line.

Any sort of victory, whether a double-figure win or buzzer beater, with these scenarios can build momentum and morale for a team heading into tournament time. But for that to occur, the intangibles must be on display tomorrow night in the Smith Center. Throughout the season, this Tar Heel team has shown grit, hustle, and the willingness to get to the dirty areas.

Each game gets bigger from here on out, and there is not a better stage to show what this team is capable of in the biggest of regular season games. A victory tomorrow will require that hustle and grit. The postseason starts tomorrow night, and a run to the ACC tournament championship puts Carolina on solid footing for a number one seed in the NCAA tournament.