The NFL season is behind us, we are four weeks away from the ACC Tournament (that is not a typo), and college basketball welcomes everyone to the season as Duke comes into Chapel Hill tomorrow night. Assuming it doesn’t snow.
The home stretch of the season begins tomorrow with what is usually the most anticipated matchup of the two. The first meeting has a deep history of amazing moments, and tomorrow night the two teams will look to write another chapter. Here are three storylines to look at.
We are in the Upside Down
No, I haven’t seen Stranger Things, but the Internet is a glorious place where one can learn a reference quickly.
Besides the fact that there’s a dark force that invades every time the darker blue comes calling, this season really does feel like it’s being played in an alternate dimension. While the quality of play of the two teams always fluctuates, the one thing you could count on was that Carolina would try to pound the ball inside and Duke would counter by jacking it up from outside the arc. The game usually would come down to which side was able to exert its style over the other better.
The latter is still true, but the former? This year, thanks to POY candidate Marvin Bagley, Duke has a true inside presence that it can use to punish teams. Bagley is averaging a double double per game at 21/11, and the offense this season flows through the likely one-and-done. Carolina, of course, is staring at some serious youth in the post and has had to rely on the arc for the bulk of its shooting, shifting to the “small” lineup since the Boston College game. Carolina has attempted 30 more 3-pointers on the season than the Blue Devils, and Duke has attempted 60 more free throws than the Heels.
This isn’t to say that Duke has abandoned the shot, as Gary Trent Jr and Grayson Allen roam the arc looking to strike, and Bagley has been known to shoot from deep as well. The question is which team will be the most successful playing an unfamiliar style?
The Baby Bigs against Bagley
To me, the most intriguing question of the game will be how does Roy Williams decide to guard Marvin Bagley? Carolina has not fared well this season when an opponent has even a decent inside presence, and Bagley is...more than decent. There is no question that he poses a huge problem for Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley. So much so that you wonder if Brandon Huffman may see some time on the court, if for nothing else than the fact that he has five fouls to provide.
As tempting as that may be, Roy also has the rest of the Duke team to worry about, and a deadly mistake would be to allow the likes of Gary Trent Jr and all around great guy Grayson Allen room to shoot the ball from outside. We all know Carolina’s issues guarding the three so far this year, so trying to double on Bagley risks death from outside. Therefore, it’s much more likely that Bagley will be allowed to get his with one guy attempting to guard him, setting him up for a big night unless BrooksManHuff grows up really fast.
Might this be when we see Roy try a few different defenses to try and protect his team? Throw a Box and 1, a 3-2, something that K wouldn’t have prepared for that would throw off a team relying on good but inexperienced players? Will Roy try a “hack a Bagley” strategy to force a 62% free throw shooter to get his points there? Bagley getting his points doesn’t spell the end for Carolina, as he scored 30 in losses to UVa and NC State. It’s a fascinating matchup for a team that normally has an answer.
The Battle of Attrition
One thing that isn’t different about the way Duke is playing this season: the lack of a bench. Three of Duke’s starting five average around 33 minutes a game, another is at 30. Two more players average over 25 minutes a game, three average 11 minutes a game, and that’s pretty much it.
The trend isn’t improving. Take a peek at Duke’s box scores once the calendar turned to 2018 and you see a lot of 30+ numbers for the starting five, including two games where multiple players played the entire game. Bagley, Allen, and Trent played every minute of the UVa game, and the only thing that kept K from repeating those numbers against St. John’s was Bagley getting his fourth foul early in the second half. One would also suspect that practice for the Blue Devils hasn’t exactly been light.
It’s a curious mindset, to say the least. Yes, younger bodies theoretically should be able to withstand long minutes, but the wear and tear of a season plus regular practice eventually adds up to even the most well-conditioned athlete.
Carolina, on the other hand, just has one player where this is a concern: Joel Berry II, but with Theo Pinson’s play in relief of Berry on Saturday and the news that Seventh Woods is no longer limited in practice, Carolina gets important minutes into its rotation at the right time of the season. Only Luke Maye and Berry are averaging over 30 minutes a game, and that’s because Roy has been able to use Brooks, Manley, Brandon Robinson, and Andrew Platek to get productive minutes off the bench. Add Woods to that mix and Carolina has a great shot at being the fresher team for the last part of the game.
That player usage will be important not just for tomorrow, but for the next two games. You may have heard, but Carolina starts the most brutal part of their schedule tomorrow, playing three games in five nights. With State looming at 2 PM on Saturday, look for Roy to try to stretch his bench as much as he can so that the team can be as fresh as possible for this stretch. Ideally, Carolina can keep it close while keeping the minutes about where they are now, perhaps even sneaking some more rest for Berry.
Whatever happens, they’ll need to move past it quickly.