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UNC vs. Duke: Game preview

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NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Well, folks, it’s here. Senior night. Biggest, best rivalry in college basketball and possibly in all of sports. We’ve had all week to build up to it, and while the Tar Heels might have the outright conference title locked up before the game even starts, nobody is going to make the mistake of thinking this game doesn’t have stakes. The Heels will play to defend their home court, win on Senior Night, go a long way towards cementing a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, and, of course, to steer this epic battle of good versus evil back towards the side of good.

It won’t be easy, however, as a Duke team riddled with chemistry issues and positional confusion for much of the season has seemed to, near the end of this regular season, start to figure out how to play together. While they’ve come down a bit since peaking mid-February, the team still looks more dangerous now than it did the last time the two teams were scheduled to play.

North Carolina is coming off by far its worst performance of the year in a total offensive shutdown at Virginia on Monday night. Nobody on offense ever really got it going and the team only mustered 43 points, the least in the Roy era. To be honest, the less said about this game, the better, so let’s speak of it no further.

Fortunately, they now face a Duke team that is 36th in the nation in defensive efficiency to Virginia’s first, and a team that cannot hang with UNC as well on the interior, regardless of what their star ratings say (Fun fact: Former walk-on PF Luke Maye has scored more points for UNC this season than 5-star freshmen Marcus Bolden and Harry Giles combined, and in fewer total minutes). UNC will be raring to go after five days between the last game and this one, and hopefully will be inspired to bring more effort and better execution to their final regular season game.

Duke has not been finishing the season extremely strongly, either, however they are coming off a win. They snapped a two-game losing streak (against Syracuse and Miami) with a win against #15 Florida State at home on Tuesday night. Freshman guard Frank Jackson, after underwhelming for much of the conference schedule, has caught fire in their last two games, scoring a combined 38 points on 14-26 shooting.

On the other hand, the usual suspects at Duke have been fairly quiet lately. ACC Player of the Year contender Luke Kennard has had the scoring volume but has not been nearly as efficient as usual, going only 19-52 from the floor in his last three games. Jayson Tatum has been similarly erratic, scoring respectably but shooting 17-46 in Duke’s last three games, including going 0-7 from behind the arc against Miami.

Grayson “I’m tripping myself now” Allen has been dealing with an ankle injury, having sat out of the Miami game and only playing 16 minutes (he scored two points) against Florida State. Even before the injury, though, he’d been struggling to score since his offensive explosion against UNC, eclipsing 10 points just once in his past five efforts. While they are still dangerous players, of course, they aren’t the juggernaut that Duke looked like they might be turning into in the mid-late weeks of February.

It is also important to note, of course, that this game marks Senior Day, the last home game of the season for Nate Britt, Isaiah Hicks, and Kennedy Meeks, as well as reserves Stilman White and Kanler Coker, as if this game needed any more emotion than it already has. As far as what that means for the game, if you’re one for absurdly cherry-picked yet still impressive statistics, this Tweet goes out to you:

This game is especially important for Hicks, who missed the opportunity to play against Duke the first time around due to injury. This hurt UNC greatly in the post; although Luke Maye filled in admirably, he isn’t the imposing presence that UNC hopes to establish on the interior in this matchup. If he can stay out of foul trouble (the largeness of this “if” cannot be overstated, given the player we’re talking about and the opposition he is facing), he has the potential to be a game-changer in this one.

His frontcourt mate Kennedy Meeks, possibly the best rebounder in the ACC, will join him in this endeavor. Brice Johnson, of course, had 18 points and 21 rebounds in his last game against Duke, and this Duke team, while better due to the presence of Amile Jefferson, is still susceptible to domination on the boards. While there may not be that kind of individual performance, as a team, Carolina can and has to establish superiority on the glass if they are to win.

Ball security will also be important in this game. While UNC has 99 more assists than turnovers in ACC play, the numbers for Duke are virtually identical. A common factor in UNC’s conference losses has been turning the ball over excessively. It may go without saying, but the Tar Heels have to maintain focus with the ball at all times from now on. Fortunately, Duke, even with their overplay style of defense, is not exactly the most ball-hawky team out there, ranking only 13th in the ACC in turnovers forced.

They do specialize in limiting assists, which means that ball movement will be key. Duke’s defensive specialty has always been on the perimeter, which means they will pressure ballhandlers. UNC needs to stay calm with the ball and find the open interior man to take advantage of this style. It’s one they’ve seen many times before, so I’m not saying anything new, but it bears repeating anyways.

It seems like everything that can be said about this rivalry has been said already. Good vs evil. Player development vs one-and-done. Public vs private. A nearly smoke-free campus vs a school built on tobacco farming. The two schools and teams are dialectically opposite in nearly everything except for excellence. UNC has taken a few hits in recent years both on the court and off it. Today seems as good a day as any to start punching back.

Score Prediction: UNC 84, Duke 75