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Game Preview: #8 UNC at #1 Duke

It’s finally here.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Wake Forest Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Guys, gals, non-binary pals, the day we’ve all been waiting for has finally arrived. It’s a little late in the schedule, but the first 2019 edition of the greatest rivalry in college basketball is upon us at last as the UNC Tar Heels travel 8 miles down the road to face the Duke Blue Devils.

There’s so much that has already been said on other media about this rivalry, and arguably an equal amount of press about this particular year’s Duke team, so there’s not a ton I can add to this preview to make it worthy of the game it precedes. But this one is a little bit personal, if only because it’s going to be on the 5-year anniversary of the game that was rescheduled because Coach Mike Krzyzewski and the Duke team couldn’t make the trek down to Chapel Hill because winter got in their way. February 20, 2014, my freshman year at UNC, was my first Duke game as a student and a game that I, seemingly miraculously, got a student ticket for through UNC’s mysterious lottery. Five years and 2 more Duke games later, the memory of that particular game: the culmination of 8 days of waiting, the apex of the season for a UNC team that was recovering from both the beginning of a scandal and rebuilding after the last title-worthy squad Roy Williams had built, the explosion of a year’s worth of animosity after Duke had swept UNC the previous year for the first time since 2010, unranked UNC beating then-5th ranked Duke, and the poetic justice of an 8-point victory, 8 days after the failure to travel 8 miles... it’s not something I’ll forget being a part of.

Five years later, a lot has changed. The next year was another sweep that went the way of the bad guys on their way to a national title, and we started to hear some grumbles that Duke had taken the reins of the rivalry for good, or at least that the combination of UNC’s NCAA issues and Duke’s newfound one-and-done recruiting dominance had put too much distance between the programs to make up until Coach K’s retirement, but since then, even since before the NCAA realized it had no leg to stand on, the rivalry has been evened out. Both teams won on the road in 2016, both teams won at home in 2017, and again in 2018. Duke took the rubber match in the ACC Tournament in 2017 before UNC took home a championship, and UNC got personal retribution in 2018. Each has won as the lower-seeded team twice and as the higher-seeded team twice in that span of 8 games. Any talk you may hear about the rivalry being dead or recently one-sided or whatever else is a failure of short-term memory.

And where the teams are now? UNC has, at least on the court, more or less completely reclaimed the elite status that they were searching for in 2014. Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson, sophomores that year, continued to grow as players and led the program on a progression back to prominence: Round of 32 in 2014, Sweet 16 in 2015, and culmination in a national championship game appearance before a last-second loss. Justin Jackson, Theo Pinson, and Joel Berry, who were in 2014 high schoolers UNC fans were hoping could shatter UNC’s recruiting troubles, finished the job in 2017, and Carolina, while maybe not able to be the recruiting powerhouse it once was before the explosion of one-and-done high schoolers, is certainly among the country’s best programs once again despite an early upset in 2018. And this year in particular, led by a freshman point guard who’s one of the best at his position in the country, a senior wing who’s one of the best shooters in the country, and several extremely capable role players, UNC has taken on one of the most difficult schedules in the country on the way to a 20-5 record with no bad losses; only a November loss to Kenpom’s 27th-ranked Texas even comes close to that description. We know how it’s gone, so I don’t need to detail this team in-depth.

Duke, meanwhile, has built a bit of a boom-or-bust reputation in that time. Constant regular season success has not been mirrored in the postseason. The team in 2014 memorably bowed out in the first round to Mercer. Krzyzewski got his own revenge in 2015 as he won the whole shebang, then played about to expectation in 2016 with a fairly weak team by the standards K had established at that point. 2017’s team was the most hyped yet, with National Player of the Year hype for Grayson Allen, a freshman in Jayson Tatum who is now considered one of the NBA’s best young players, a very good senior Amile Jefferson, and Luke Kennard, who may have been the country’s best shooter, certainly the ACC’s. They never came all the way together and fell in the second round to a surprisingly great South Carolina team, who made the Final 4 as a 7th seed before bowing out to Gonzaga, who would then lose to UNC. 2018 played about to expectation, losing in the Elite Eight to Kansas as a 2nd seed.

And this year’s team is undoubtedly Duke’s most hyped yet, and so far, are living up to it as much as can be expected. The three-wing combo of R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Zion Williamson was expected to be essentially unstoppable in college ball. Barrett has been inefficient at times but is putting up serious numbers and Reddish has been inconsistent, but Williamson has been nothing short of historically brilliant, and the three are kept in line by freshman point guard Tre Jones, whose assist:turnover ratio is better than 4:1. That’s astounding for anybody, and fairly jaw-dropping for a freshman. They clearly miss him when he’s gone, Duke’s sole conference loss (to Syracuse) and a pair of to-the-wire wins in a season that’s been marked by blowouts came during a stretch where he was unable to play. The rest of the team has been supporting that quartet fairly ably: Marques Bolden completes the starting lineup and makes shots when he gets the opportunity, shooting above 62% for the season to the tune of 5.7 points per game. He’s a fine interior defender, too, averaging 2 blocks per game to lead the team. Javin DeLaurier subs in for him and is more efficient offensively and defensively but is a liability on the boards. Jack White and Alex O’Connell round out the rotation and are... fine. O’Connell is the team’s best shooter and White is an athletic but undersized stretch four. They don’t have too many weaknesses on paper, but like I said earlier, that hasn’t always given Duke what they want. If that doesn’t change this year, it might haunt Coach K’s legacy for years.

So this late-season matchup sees two programs trying, in different respects, to cement their status as national elites. What does UNC need to do to complete that goal?

Play. To. Your. Strengths.

UNC, per tradition, is one of the fastest teams in the country, ranking 8th with 76.4 possessions per game. They do this without forcing a ton of turnovers, which is particularly impressive, and means that they have a lot of possessions without the opposing defense set (this includes possessions via offensive rebounds). The Heels need to take advantage of this to get easy shots off, because once Duke’s defense is set, it is phenomenal. They’re liable to transition, though; a full 26% of opponents’ field goal attempts come in transition and most of the time, opponents are able to get the shot they want, whether that’s a transition layup attempt or a transition three-pointer. Easy points are essential.

The Tar Heels are also a terrific passing team, ranking 7th in the country in assist rate (better than 63%, and against a Duke team that can cover as much ground on defense as this one can, it will be vital not to stray from this. Duke, with Jones and Williamson being terrific on-ball defenders, allows just 50% of opposing field goal attempts to be assisted (that’s a mediocre 120th in the country, for the record), but they’ve played a lot of weak teams and UNC is anything but that. UNC has consistently been able to get shooters freed up from a variety of actions, and they will all need to be in use against Duke. Coby White and Cam Johnson are on absolute tears right now, hitting 69 of their combined 161 attempts from deep for a better than 42% rate. Kenny Williams has also quietly been good from behind the arc in conference play; he’s hit 19 of 49 threes for almost a 39% rate. All three need to continue their form if the Heels are going to win offensively. A spark from Luke Maye wouldn’t hurt, either.

And finally, the Heels have been pretty good about denying the ball into the paint, with the exception of the two Miami games. This team isn’t very resistant at the rim or in the paint; they block more two-point jumpers than they do layup/close attempts. But they are good off-ball defenders in and around the post, and don’t allow a lot of paint attempts. This, maybe more than anything, will be key against a Duke team that makes nearly all of its hay inside. Jones, Barrett and Williamson have never been good shooters, Reddish was supposed to be an elite shooter and has shown that a couple of times but has been decidedly average overall, and purported sharpshooter Alex O’Connell has been good, not great. All of them, however, can make you pay if they get inside. Denying them has been hard, as we can clearly see from their record, but it’s been possible to at least shut part of that conglomerate down to the point of them being mortal. Louisville did it and was up 23 before choking in a historic fashion. N.C. State hung with them for a bit into the second half before just being physically overwhelmed. UNC is as good a defensive team as Louisville and is better physically than the Wolfpack. Taking on the Blue Devils on defense will be difficult, but they can do it.

Most of all, UNC just needs to not play scared. This Duke team plays a brand of basketball that can be overwhelming. Zion Williamson is capable of absolutely monstrous finishes around the rim through contact, Barrett can put the ball in the basket from nearly any angle he has to, and overall they are capable of suffocating on-ball defense. It’s easy to lose morale even when the scoreboard says you’re close, or even ahead, because of how physically dominant this team is and how inferior they can make you feel. This game will be, if UNC can execute properly, a test of maturity. Can this team look past what the game feels like and focus on what it is? That will be the final key to pulling off what could be an upset for the ages in this rivalry’s storied history.

Analytics have Duke winning by double-digits, helped by their home-court advantage. UNC’s been brilliant on the road this ACC season, though, and are coming off what has to be a confidence booster of a game against Wake Forest. Ultimately, I think Cameron Indoor will be too much to overcome, but it will be close. And UNC will definitely be raring for the rematch. (Am I hedging bets here? You’re dadgum right I am.)

Prediction: Duke 83, UNC 78