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UNC vs Duke: Three Things to Watch

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Freshman point guards, shooting slumps, and fast starts

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Boston College Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

The final game of the 2019 regular season tips off at 6:00 PM this Saturday when Duke comes to town for a top-5 matchup. Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson, and Kenny Williams take the court for the final time in the Smith Center as the trio will try to finish atop the ACC regular season standings. Contrary to some misguided fans, that is a real title worth celebrating. If successful, it will be Williams’ and Maye’s third regular season championship, after being part of the 2016 and 2017 banner-raising teams.

The biggest storyline has been, and will continue to be, Zion Williamson’s availability. The freshman phenom has not played since Maye’s defense* forced him to rip his Nike into pieces and injure his knee. That will lead some folks to suggest that Zion’s likely absence will take some of the meaning and luster away from the season finale.** As we all know, there are few games that ever carry more meaning than the UNC-Duke rivalry, regardless of who is wearing the uniform.

* Technically accurate
** Those people are dumb.

So, now that we have the obligatory Williamson reference out of the way, here are three real storylines that will actually impact the game.

Backcourt Battle

Both teams start a future first round NBA draft pick at point guard. The Heels have Coby White and the Blue Devils rely on Tre Jones. In the first matchup, White noticeably struggled and UNC relied heavily on Seventh Woods to provide a steady presence during key stretches. Lost in the noise, though, was that Tre Jones was equally as shaky. Check out the stats.

T. Jones: 40 min, 1-11 FGM/A, 0-5 3PM/A, 1-6 FTM/A, 3 pts, 8 reb, 5 asts, 3 tov, 4 st, 1 bl
C. White: 28 min, 3-14 FGM/A, 2-8 3PM/A, 1-6 FTM/A, 9 pts, 5 reb, 3 asts, 6 tov, 0 st, 2 bl

Mid-way through the first half, it was abundantly clear that the Heels were purposely sagging off Jones, goading him to shoot. He obliged, effectively being a non-factor on the offensive end.

His defense, however, ruined Coby’s night. White, who is the better scorer and almost as good at facilitating, struggled to find a groove. Jones gathered 4 steals and White coughed up 6 turnovers. Their per game averages in ACC play confirm this was not a one-night blemish.

T. Jones: 35.4 mpg, 8.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 4.8 apg, 1.4 tov, 2.1 st,
C. White: 29.5 mpg, 17.9 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.2 apg, 3.2 tov, 1.2 st,

The UNC seniors will be mentioned. Duke’s two other top-5 NBA draft picks will receive attention. A player who probably won’t play will have a camera fixated on him all night. Yet, the most important battle may be between two freshman point guards trying to outplay the other.

Kenny Williams vs Jack White

This may seem like an odd matchup. They won’t guard each other, don’t play the same position, and have vastly different roles and responsibilities. Alex O’Connell would make more sense as Kenny’s counterpart, right? Why do these two matter?

Interestingly, there are two similarities. Both players are their team’s fourth (or fifth) option on offense. The duo have also been mired in extensive shooting slumps.

Two games ago, Jack White finally broke out of a 12 game stretch where he was 0-26 from behind the three-point line. He went 3-3 against Miami and followed that up with a 2-5 performance against Wake Forest. For a team that will need some help to stretch the defense, Jack White could provide a mismatch on the perimeter – if he’s hitting.

Kenny Williams has also been struggling from deep. He was in the middle of a four game, 0-14 slump before a 2-5 performance against Boston College. Williams has found plenty of other way to contribute and will remain dangerous in other facets of the game. Most fans, though, would understand if Duke decides to let him run freely around the perimeter in order to focus on collapsing in the paint.

Cam Reddish and RJ Barrett are going to get their points. O’Connell has also made the most of extra playing time, hitting 10 of 17 three-point attempts in the past four games. Some combination of White, Maye, and Johnson will buoy UNC’s offense. They are all known quantities.

However, both teams will require some extra assistance. This rivalry has a history of unlikely heroes stepping up to sway the outcome of a game. If either White or Williams can regain any semblance of a reliable stroke, the game could quickly swing in their team’s favor.

Fast Start

Much has been made of UNC’s success on the road. Adam Lucas touched on how the 9-0 ACC road record was accomplished. North Carolina has been dominant when they get off to a fast start, rarely relinquishing four or five possession leads. Lucas inspired me to do some additional research, which can be found in this tweet.

That kind of success has been elusive at home. Of the eight ACC opponents in Chapel Hill, five have held the lead at some point in the second half. Syracuse (W), Notre Dame (W), Miami (W,OT), Virginia (L), and Louisville (L) all kept pace with North Carolina for at least a half. An inability to put those teams away early have led to nervous moments on Roy Williams Court.

The three teams North Carolina handled easily, thanks to first half surges? Florida State, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina State. Two of those teams are actually good. The Hokies, despite missing starting point guard Justin Robinson, defeated Duke last week. Florida State lost to the Blue Devils on a buzzer-beater. Both teams are currently ranked and will likely earn no worse than a #5 seed in the NCAA tournament.

In their current form, Duke has looked shaky since UNC ran them off of their own court two weeks ago. The loss to Virginia Tech and an uninspired 71-point performance against bottom-dweller Wake Forest on “senior” night show a vulnerable, but still very dangerous, team. Whether the Heels pound the paint or light it up from deep, putting the Blue Devils in an early hole will go a long way in securing a season sweep in the greatest rivalry in sports.

Besides, in four games against in-state ACC opponents — Wake Forest, Duke, and North Carolina State (twice) — the Heels have never trailed.

Why start on Saturday?

Go Heels.