It is finally here: the biggest rivalry in college basketball kicks off tonight when the Duke Blue Devils (19-4, 7-3) visit the North Carolina Tar Heels (17-7, 6-5) in the Dean Smith Center. It will be the 246th meeting between the two programs, and the ninth consecutive game with both teams ranked in the AP top 25.
This year’s chapter in the UNC/Duke rivalry has taken a unique turn in comparison to previous years. Back in August, I wrote an early preview of what to expect from the two programs this season. With Duke obtaining two extremely talented big men, and UNC losing Tony Bradley to the NBA draft, both teams have had to take pages out of each other’s playbook in terms of how their offense is ran. While their playbooks are not carbon copies of one another, we do get to see who can execute the other’s game the best. Without further ado, let’s take a look at both teams in this heated rivalry.
Duke Blue Devils
The Duke Blue Devils for the most part this season are having a very strong year. As most know, the Blue Devils were the preseason favorite to win the 2018 National Championship. It is quite the lofty goal for a team with such young talent, especially given the fact that in the past five years alone teams that have won it all in April are also teams that typically have a solid amount of upperclassmen leading the charge. Yes, that even includes the 2015 Duke team that cut down that nets against Wisconsin.
While the Blue Devils are still hanging around the top of the AP top 25 polls these days, they still have some losses on their resume that raise some eyebrows. Losses to Boston College on the road and NC State in Cameron served as a bit of a wake-up call for the young squad, despite also taking a loss against Virginia (who at the time of writing this is undefeated in the ACC). Perhaps their most surprising loss, however, was the loss they took this past weekend against the St. John’s Red Storm. Marvin Bagley III found himself in foul trouble early in the second half, and all around Duke failed to stop the Storm from making a run and securing the victory.
To say that UNC should be concerned about getting Duke after a loss is fair, but the truth is that UNC should be a little concerned anyway going into this game. Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. have been instrumental in this team’s success this season. Bagley alone is averaging 21.4 points and 11.2 rebounds per game, while Carter has averaged close to a double-double himself with 14.4 points and 9.6 rebounds per game.
The scary thing about Marvin Bagley is that he is a legitimate modern NBA big man. He can shoot the three, he can drive the ball, and has enough speed to chase players down in transition. He is a load to handle in the paint, and UNC is going to have to figure out a way to handle his size and athleticism without getting into foul trouble.
While these two big men are the primary source of angst, the X-factor in this game is going to be Gary Trent Jr. Averaging 15 points per game, he is easily Duke’s best perimeter shooter this year, coming off of a 5-7 shooting day from three against St. John’s. The way UNC has been struggling on defense as of late makes Trent a nightmare on the perimeter, and so one can only hope that there have been some corrections made over the last few days to prepare for this matchup.
Finally, there is Grayson Allen. While the he has been averaging 14.5 points a game for the Blue Devils this year, he has been wildly inconsistent. This past weekend against the Red Storm, Allen shot 1-7 from the field and finished the game with 7 points. It’s really hard to tell if he will be a factor in this game, but seeing how it is UNC vs. Duke, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Allen attempt to make his final trip to the Dean Dome a memorable one. I just hope that the Heels remember to watch their legs. Also their faces. Also their, well, you get the idea.
The biggest chink in the armor of this year’s Duke team is their defense. Kenpom has the Devils ranked 72nd in defensive efficiency, and a lot of that has to do with their commitment to the 2-3 zone this year. When this team plays man to man, bad things happen. Very bad things happen. It isn’t much of a surprise — teams with a large amount of freshmen usually take a while to figure things out how on the defensive side of the ball. The 2-3 zone has been good enough considering they shoot the lights out in most games, but against this year’s version of UNC, it leaves them vulnerable to one of the Heels’ many shooters to catch fire.
North Carolina Tar Heels
The Heels finally managed to regain some footing in the ACC this past weekend with a blowout win against Pitt. It was the first game since the game against Georgia Tech that UNC managed to keep a team from shooting 40%+ from three. While the defense did look a little better, Pitt also provided plenty of help in shooting such a low percentage. Quite a few shots that were missed from three were wide open or lightly-contested, but nevertheless, the 15-30 nightmare is over...for now.
Another encouraging note from the game against Pitt is that six Tar Heels manage to score in double-figures. Kenny Williams needed a strong performance badly going into tonight’s game, as he had been in a shooting slump throughout ACC play. Williams finished the game with 15 points, shooting a nice 6-9 from the field and 3-5 from three. UNC will need him and Cameron Johnson both to shoot well in order to win this game, as we can likely expect them to get some decent looks at the basket against Duke’s zone defense.
Luke Maye also managed to return to form against the Panthers this past weekend. He shot 9-15 from the field, finishing the day with 26 points, 8 rebounds, and 5 assists. He will have a tough task ahead of him in dealing with Bagley and Carter, but thankfully Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley seem to be gaining a little bit of traction as of late. Both freshmen are coming off of 10-point performances, and they will undoubtedly see a good amount of minutes against the Blue Devils tonight.
One of the biggest keys to UNC winning the game tonight will be out-rebounding one of the best rebounding teams in the country. Bagley and Carter will make that task incredibly difficult, but the Heels definitely have the capability of out-toughing the Blue Devils. Another key will be shooters not going cold from three. UNC will likely get theirs at the rim at certain points during the game, but if Duke goes into the 2-3 zone the Heels have more than enough weapons to make them pay if they can actually get shots to fall. Joel Berry II, Kenny Williams, and Cameron Johnson will be important in accomplishing that, but the most important player for UNC in this game is Luke Maye. He is shooting dangerously close to 50% from three in ACC play, and he needs to test Bagley or Carter’s ability to guard the perimeter as often as possible if they make the mistake of playing man to man defense. The third key to UNC coming away with a victory is perimeter defense. The Heels need to prove that the job they did against Pitt was more of their doing than Pitt’s mistakes, because Duke is still highly capable of making them pay from deep.
When initially attempting to figure out who would win this game, Gary Trent Jr. was the player in this game that I thought would give Duke just enough to win this game. Upon further contemplation, I don’t think it is quite that simple. Yes, Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter will get theirs in the paint, but if Trent isn’t from shooting at his average clip they would need Grayson Allen to be lights out to win this game. UNC desperately needs to make this the game that they put it all together on defense, and I think that will be what keeps Trent’s production low enough to keep Duke from running away with a victory.
UNC’s supporting cast to Joel Berry and Luke Maye should also be a problem for Duke’s defense. Theo Pinson should have a strong performance in this game as long as he stays out of foul trouble, and the Pitt game may have been a potential sign that we could see the return of pre-ACC Kenny Williams. Cameron Johnson also has produced fairly well, despite up and down performances shooting from the perimeter. It’s hard to imagining a scenario where he scores fewer than 10 points in this game, and it will indeed be sorely needed.
Ultimately, UNC has as good of a chance to win this game as they’ve had against any opponent this year. Their schedule has been outrageous to say the least, but they are at least catching the Blue Devils on the front-end of what will be a brutal five days. They just might have enough this time around to best Duke, but I would expect things to be a lot more challenging in round two when the Heels have to travel to Cameron for Grayson Allen’s Senior Night.
UNC 90, Duke 86