In what is now becoming somewhat of a throwback tradition to the pre-expansion years of the ACC, North Carolina and Duke will meet in the ACC Tournament for the third consecutive year. The teams have split the two previous post-season meetings after only meeting once from 2004-2015. That season, 2011, the Blue Devils defeated the Tar Heels in the conference tournament championship before crashing out in the Sweet 16 with Kyrie Irving.
This time, a championship isn’t on the line, but the game is dripping with narratives — both perceived and real. Zion Williamson’s return unsurprisingly has the national media slobbering over themselves. For many, North Carolina still needs to validate their under-the-radar season with a win against the freshman phenom. There is also a strong belief the winner of this game will receive the final #1 seed in next week’s NCAA Tournament.
With this being the third contest in the last 24 days, there isn’t a lot we don’t know about either team. Nonetheless, in an effort to sound smart and sophisticated, here are three things to watch in tonight’s ACC semifinal contest.
Last game, we said the battle of the point guards was going to be pivotal. That turned out to be a correct assumption. Coby White went off for 21 points and 0 turnovers, Tre Jones was his usual steady-but-not-spectacular self, and the Heels rolled to a relatively easy win.
Tonight, that match-up goes a little deeper. Early in the year, UNC struggled with turnovers as Coby learned the PG position and the rest of the team learned their roles. In their first 20 games, North Carolina had 11+ turnovers 18 times. They also had a turnover percentage rate under 15% in just 10 of those 20 games (per sports-reference.com).
In the last 12 games, UNC has committed 11+ turnovers four times. They’ve done so just once in the last six games. That’s a monumental shift in ball security. The turnover percentage rate has been under 15% a surprising nine times. Some people may call that a “pattern” or “trend”. Whatever you preferred term, it is an encouraging development for the Heels.
In both previous games, UNC had fewer turnovers than Duke. For a team that likes as many possessions as possible (UNC) and a team that maximizes an opponents mistakes in the open court (Duke), the winner may be the team that coughs it up the least.
North Carolina’s bench as been up and down. Often performing, but not always producing, understanding it’s success has been difficult for many casual basketball fans. Against Louisville, though, their impact was noticeable.
Five UNC reserves (Woods, Manley, Robinson, Little, Platek) combined for 16 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists in just 37 minutes of action. That’s a quality night against a quality opponent, but only two players (Robinson, Nassir) played more than 10 minutes. Roy has tightened up the rotation, but the bench is stealing key minutes through the game.
In 33 minutes against Syracuse, Duke’s bench gave 8 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists. Only three subs played (Jordan Goldwire, Alex O’Connell, and Jack White). None played more than 14 minutes. Syracuse does not play at the same pace as Carolina.
Without Marques Bolden, who is still out with a knee injury, Duke is thin and vulnerable to foul trouble or general fatigue against a running team like UNC. For as dominant as Zion was against Syracuse, his conditioning levels are a legitimate concern against a much faster paced team. At least Joey Baker is available, right?
For their part, North Carolina hasn’t faced a Duke team with a legitimate threat in the post. Now that Zion is back, Brooks and Maye will be facing a challenge unlike any they have seen all year. Manley, Huffman, and Little could all hear their name called to give some help down low.
We’ve mentioned the elite defense this UNC team has displayed. With an Adjusted Defensive Efficiency of 90.9 (per Ken Pomeroy), this is arguably North Carolina’s best defensive team since 2012.
Louisville was the 11th time in 19 ACC games that Carolina held it’s opponents to under 1.0 PPP. Duke could only muster to 0.83 and 0.91 PPP in the first two match-ups. The offense gets the headlines, but the defense is winning games. After last year’s defensive debacles, how is that happening?
There are probably many answers, but the most noticeable has been an uncanny ability to strangle teams for long periods of time. A few examples from four of their last five games.
Louisville: One field goal in final 5:34 of first half. Extended 34-33 lead to 45-35. Happened again from 8:25-4:02 in the second half. UNC’s 70-61 lead doubled to 79-61.
Duke: Did not score a field goal between 10:06-5:59 in the second half. The lead grew from 61-58 to 75-60. (More on that defensive performance can be found here.)
Boston College: Scoreless from 14:16-9:01. Carolina effectively put the game out of reach, 28-16. That was followed up with another BC drought for the final 8:18 for the first half, when the Eagles scored just 2 points.
Syracuse: Scoreless from 18:42-14:35 in the second half. North Carolina took the lead in a close game and never trailed again.
I get it. Runs are part of the game. This, however, is a different kind of situation. North Carolina’s ability to fluster opponents like this is unique. If North Carolina can force another Duke drought (or two), they’ll move on to Saturday’s championship.