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UNC at Duke: Three Things to Watch

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Live ball turnovers, Tre and Cole, and bench production

NCAA Basketball: N.C. State at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

The conclusion of the 2019-2020 regular season is finally upon us. Tomorrow, North Carolina will travel to Cameron Indoor Stadium for the Blue Devils’ Senior Night. The Heels will be looking to make amends for their epic collapse in Chapel Hill less than a month ago.

UNC is riding a three-game winning streak, while Duke has lost three of their last five. Keeping with this theme of threes, here is a trio of things to look for tomorrow evening.

Live Ball Turnovers

In the first meeting, Duke scored 25 of their 98 points off of 18 North Carolina turnovers.

Good. Gracious.

I don't get too bent out of shape over dead ball and live ball turnovers. A turnover is a turnover, in that it denies your team the ability to score points. However, the reality is Duke’s defense punishes teams for giving up the ball during the run of play and they can be lethal in transition. (Even if there are new rules that allow Tre Jones to extend his arm and push Cole Anthony away from the basket while taking an extra step into the lane for an easy lay-up).

Regardless of the reasons, limiting Duke’s transition offense will be vital to UNC’s success. For the optimists out there, UNC is averaging just 10.6 turnovers per game during their three-game run. Duke is forcing just 10.8 turnovers in their last five games. There is hope.

Cole vs. Tre

Speaking of Tre Jones, there is no doubt that both teams rely heavily on their point guards. In their first game, Jones arguably abused Cole Anthony in the final 15 minutes of action as the UNC point guard avoided committing a fifth foul. Jones finished with 28 points and 6 assists, while repeatedly getting whatever shot he wanted as the Devils mounted their comeback.

Anthony was equally impressive, pouring in 24 points and grabbing 11 rebounds. Notably, it was just his third game back after missing six weeks recovering from a torn meniscus. None of that matters now.

The Duke sophomore is averaging 17.4 points over the last five games. He’s doing it on an inefficient 35.5% shooting from the floor, but a worrisome 10-21 from three (47.7%). He also has an unsurprising 2.1 A:T ratio over that span. Can Anthony slow down Jones? Will we see a similar improvement to what we saw in Coby White last year in the team’s second meeting?

Or will Jones’ defense disrupt the offensive balance that Cole has seemingly finally achieved in the past 10 days? Over the last three games, Anthony is averaging 20.3 points on 59.0% shooting and 6.3 assists. More impressive is he’s been 12-20 from three (60%) with a 2.33 A:T ratio. Those are both better than his season averages of 36.2% from deep and an A:T of 1.2.

Bench Production

During this win streak, UNC has outscored their opponent’s bench 108-35. Some of that is aided by Senior Night starting line-ups, but even adjusted for normal substitutes (Keeling and Pierce instead of Brooks and Anthony), the Heels still win that battle 59-35. For a bench that has been outscored 546-540 for the entire season, these are positive developments.

Last month, UNC’s bench outscored Duke 25-13. Justin Pierce and Christian Keeling contributed 23 of those points, and it was a major reason North Carolina was able to dominate large portions of the game. In a perfect world, the Heels would have a full complement of players and use that bench to their advantage again.

Unfortunately, this is 2020 and the Heels can’t have nice things. Starting center Armando Bacot’s status is unknown after his ankle injury against Syracuse. He missed the victory against Wake Forest, and while UNC’s offense has flourished with a small-ball lineup, its defense has been downright atrocious.

We highlighted those issues earlier this week. To drive home that point, in the last three games the Heels have allowed 1.05, 1.11, and 1.15 PPP. The offensive side, though, has been equally impressive with the Heels scoring 1.09, 1.33, and 1.27 PPP. It’s not a coincidence that Bacot has barely seen the court in that time, as our friend Dadgum Box Scores points out.

If Bacot cannot play, the legitimate scoring options off the bench become even more limited. Granted, Brandon Robinson is available this game after missing the first match-up with his own ankle issues, but the point remains. The Heels may have a thinner-than-normal bench to keep up with senior-led bench of Jack White, Jordan Goldwire, and Justin Robinson — on Senior Night. Not to mention, this leaves Garrison Brooks as the only body capable of challenging Vernon Carey on the block.

A lack of depth in the Dean Dome hindered UNC’s ability to get the job done in round one.

It could be their undoing again in round two.