Tomorrow night, the North Carolina Tar Heels will travel down Tobacco Road for their first game of the year against the Duke Blue Devils. The wait is finally over, and we will finally see who will prevail in the 249th installment of this heated rivalry. Will it be the freshman-laden super team that has arguably the best player in college basketball leading the charge that comes out victorious, or will it be the high-powered veteran team that upsets the Blue Devils on their own court? It should be a fun and hostile game as always, and both teams should arrive in Cameron Indoor Stadium ready to play their best game of the season.
The Blue Devils have certainly had themselves a very good season thanks to their star players Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett. The composition of the team takes the transformation that began to happen last year and takes it to a whole other level — this team loves to drive, loves to finish at the rim, loves to be disruptive on defense, and loves to impose their will on their opponents in general. They are one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the country, which is unusual for how their teams are usually built, but is also largely due to the struggles of freshman forward Cameron Reddish. Aside from their perimeter shooting issues, this is a team that will be very, very hard to beat come March.
Coach K has an extremely good team this year, but it isn’t impossible to beat them. Gonzaga and Syracuse found ways to get it done, Louisville should’ve gotten it done, and NC State had a window of opportunity as well once Williamson got himself into foul trouble. So how can North Carolina put themselves in a position to win the toughest game this season so far? Let’s take a look at three keys of the game, and how the Tar Heels can keep their perfect ACC road win streak intact.
Making anybody not named Zion beat them
It goes without saying that Zion Williamson is the most popular college basketball player that has come onto the scene in years. He has been extremely dominant this season, averaging 22.4 points per game and is shooting 68.3% from the field. Prior to his first game at Duke, the popular opinion was that his jump shot left much to be desired, and that his bread and butter was his ability to attack the basket. Well, as it turns out that hasn’t been true, as he’s been able to do just about anything and everything that he’s wanted to do on the court.
The scariest part of Williamson’s game is that he’s so athletic for his size. Sure, he can jump out of the gym and dazzle fans with incredible dunks, but it’s the other shots that he takes at the rim that will be a huge problem for Carolina. He knows how to adjust his shots in mid-air, he can work opponents in the post with ease, and if he does have a bad shot he knows how to get the ball to a teammate that can finish the play for him. He’s perhaps the biggest matchup nightmare ever to don that other shade of blue, and on some levels it just isn’t fair. So then how does one stop a player as gifted as Williamson? It’s simple: deny him the ball, and make his teammates beat you.
Given the fact that he plays the four spot, it’s ideal that Roy Williams has Garrison Brooks guard Williamson and puts Luke Maye on Marques Bolden. Maye has historically struggled with athletic bigs for the better part of his career, and him guarding Williamson may create a fatal mismatch. Accolades handed out by Roy Williams aside, Brooks is an excellent defender off of the ball. He knows how to stay on his man, deny passing opportunities, and will make his man work for every touch that he gets. The second-best option if Brooks should find himself in foul trouble would likely be Nassir Little, who is really good friends with Williamson and has a lot of familiarity with his game. Not getting caught up in mismatches will play a big role in just how much damage Williamson is able to do.
By limiting the touches for Williamson, it should force Barrett, Reddish, or Tre Jones to try and take things over. All eyes would be on Barrett, who is also having a very good season and is averaging 22.7 points per game. Barrett is an interesting player to deal with, and is drawing comparisons to James Harden from some analysts. His shooting prowess is nowhere near Harden’s level, but he does have some of the same shiftiness when attacking the basket. The key to stopping Barrett is finding some way to deny driving lanes to the basket and not letting him shoot in high volumes. He can be somewhat streaky, but he isn’t shy about continuing to attack as much as he deems necessary.
Finally, there is Cameron Reddish. Reddish was recruited by Duke as a shooter, but this year has struggled greatly. He still averages 13.8 points per game, but assuredly Duke fans will be the first to admit that it’s hard to know what to expect from him at any given time. Coming off of a nine-point performance sets the stage for a trap situation, and the Heels are going to have to force him off of the three-point line to get his shots. Make him drive, make him shoot pull-up jumpers inside the arc, but letting him heat up from three could spell trouble for the Heels.
In short, the goal for North Carolina isn’t to beat Zion Williamson, but it is to beat the players around him. Playing smart, aggressive defense will be critical in limiting his touches, as he will undoubtedly do damage no matter what. Getting him into foul trouble for the third-straight game might also help in forcing his teammates to step up, but unlike Louisville and NC State, the Heels are going to have to make him foul out completely if they want to guarantee an easier road down the stretch.
UNC’s red-hot perimeter shooting
The big advantage that the Tar Heels have over the Blue Devils in this game is that they have been able to consistently stretch the floor and knock down three-pointers. Cameron Johnson is coming off of arguably his best performance in a Carolina uniform, as he made an unreal 70% of his three-pointers against Wake Forest. His seven three-pointers fell just two shots shy of breaking the school record for the most made in a single game. Guarding him on the perimeter will undoubtedly be one of Duke’s toughest tasks so far this season, as Johnson will enter the contest with the 9th-highest three-point FG% in the nation according to NCAA.com.
While it would be ideal for Coach K to only lose sleep over containing Johnson, Coby White has also been a very deadly shooter. Despite a lackluster performance against Virginia, White has also been highly efficient from deep, averaging 38% from behind the arc. This number doesn’t tell the entire story, however, as he has shot 40% or better from three in six of the last 10 games with his best performance being the overtime thriller against Miami. White should be able to get some good looks off of the pick-and-roll against Tre Jones, as Jones tends to play under the ball screen which is likely to give White some quick looks at the basket before a hand is in his face.
While White and Johnson will be key in UNC’s perimeter attack, look for Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, or Brandon Robinson to step up as well. Maye and Williams specifically have struggled from deep this year, but a rivalry game as seniors in Cameron Indoor Stadium could set the stage for one or both of these players to make things really difficult on the Blue Devils. If any of these three players decide to get hot, plenty of driving lanes should open up to the basket, creating better opportunities for some easier shots at the rim. That is, of course, unless Duke breaks out one of their zone defenses again.
Nassir Little shining on the big stage
With all of the attention that has been directed towards Zion Williamson all season long, UNC freshman Nassir Little has taken a backseat to his close friend. Little has taken some time to gain his footing this year, and it has been a process that has confused and at times frustrated Tar Heel fans. Little has has stated numerous times over the course of the season that he knew that playing for Roy Williams would be a learning process, and that he arrived in Chapel Hill knowing he would have to work for everything that he wanted. Well, he has indeed put in the work, and now it is time to see if his efforts will be on display in Durham.
Little is coming off of an ankle injury, and also suffered a very minor injury in the game against Wake Forest. After leaving the game with a mysterious injury, it was later reported that he had gotten elbowed in the sternum and that Williams didn’t think it was worth it to put him back in the game since it was very much out of hand. Last night on his radio show, Coach Williams confirmed that Little is a go for tomorrow night.
While we didn’t get quite the buildup that many were hoping for, the Nassir Little vs. Zion Williamson matchup will still be one worth watching. Little and Williamson are close friends, and are very familiar with each other’s games. As many may remember, Little put on quite a show during the McDonald’s All-American game, and made Williamson look like he was the player that was supposed to take the backseat. The harsh reality is that this is will not be a high school all-star game, and Zion Williamson will not play half-heartedly in front of the Cameron Crazies.
Regardless, if there is any player in the ACC that has the best shot at taking on Williamson at their best, it is Little. It’s asking a lot, especially since we haven’t really seen the jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring breakout game yet and we’re past the halfway mark in ACC play. However, Little made some really good strides prior to his injury, and Williamson will have to find a way to guard him as well. His propensity as of late to get into foul trouble may come back to bite him, as Little has been very good at getting to the rim and forcing defenders to become overly aggressive. This game is set up like an eloquently written underdog story, and it will be up to Little to decide where the story goes from there.