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UNC vs. Duke: Three Things to Watch

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Will The Rivalry exceed tempered expectations tomorrow?

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

When discussing the first meeting of the season between the North Carolina Tar Heels and Duke, every commentator, pundit, and analyst has mentioned that tomorrow’s matchup will be the first time since 1960 that both the Tar Heels and Blue Devils are unranked.

As evidenced by last year’s overtime thriller in Chapel Hill, the rivalry game can still live up the hype if one team is down. Do not forget that epic comeback with less than five minutes to play in 2014 (I was there!).

But what happens when both teams are below expectations for the season?

Until Tuesday’s game against Clemson, it looked as though Carolina had turned the corner on the season. The combination of the Tigers’ disruptive defense and a COVID-induced scheduling break was lethal for the Tar Heels.

As for the Blue Devils, Duke struggled much more than UNC during January. Their team looks entirely out of sorts beyond the Durham city limits while putting together wins of varying fashion at home. Unfortunately, tomorrow’s game will be played in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

With no crowd and two stumbling teams, the hype and pageantry of tomorrow’s rivalry game will not be the same. However, the objective remains the same.

Here are a few things to watch on Saturday night.

Reducing Turnovers

In three of four conference losses this season, turnovers were a key contributor to the defeat.

Here is a breakdown of turnovers and turnover margin during ACC play:

UNC Turnovers and Turnover Margin in ACC Play

Game Turnovers Turnover Margin W/L
Game Turnovers Turnover Margin W/L
at NC State 18 4 L
at Georgia Tech 18 5 L
vs. Notre Dame 9 -1 W
at Miami 20 6 W
vs. Syracuse 11 -3 W
at Flordia State 14 -3 L
vs. Wake Forest 12 -8 W
vs. NC State 13 2 W
at Pitt 13 2 W
at Clemson 17 10 L

During league play, the Tar Heels are averaging 14.5 turnovers per game.

In four losses, UNC has turned it over an average of 16.75 times, with a cumulative turnover margin of +16. In victories, Carolina is committing an average of 13 turnovers, with a cumulative turnover margin of -2. If you take away the Miami anomaly, the turnover average drops to 11.6, and the cumulative margin improves to -8.

Clemson’s defense deserves credit for making UNC’s offense look impotent, especially during the first half and later portion of the second half. Look no further than just a single point from Armando Bacot, a goose egg for RJ Davis, Caleb Love and Kerwin Walton combining for 5-17 from the floor, and Garrison Brooks forcing a turnaround jumper on nearly every possession he touched the ball. Through Clemson’s defense or their own inability to do so, it was clear that the UNC offense did not produce the type of shot selections that made it so efficient in the last three games.

This many turnovers and the staggering turnover margin is a recipe for disaster against any half-decent team. Against a Duke team that has played much better at home than on the road, UNC’s need to take better care of the ball after such regression cannot be overemphasized.

Defensive Intensity

After the loss versus Clemson, this is what Carolina head coach Roy Williams had to say:

We had two really good practices. We work 10 times harder in practice the last two days than we did in the game tonight. And I felt that we would play well- I really did. I thought that we made some good strides defensively in the practices the last two days.

The Tar Heels held Wake Forest to under 40 percent from the floor, and some of their most impressive defensive energy came against the recent win against NC State. The defensive effort in the loss versus Clemson was a complete regression. Whether it was getting off ball screens, closing the gap on defenders, or being tough in the paint, the UNC defensive intensity was as low as it had been at the beginning of ACC play.

How can Carolina regain some of that defensive confidence?

Let’s take a moment to look back at what Dean Smith had to say about team defense:

We attempt to instill team pride in defense. A team effort must be required in order to get the job done. The pressing, pressure defense which is our primary attack requires five defensive players working together against four offensive men. We are usually off someone, overplaying, always helping, and always looking for help. Of course, we do assign individual matchups prior to a game. However, we seldom tell a player that he has the sole responsibility of keeping his man down. His job is to contribute his efforts in an overall manner that will help our team keep our opponent down.

It may have been the week break, the struggles on offense bleeding over, or distinct advantage for home teams during COVID-era games. In tomorrow’s rivalry game, with all that is said about each team’s down year, it comes back to that team pride in defense.

Putting the Pieces Back Together

UNC fans were starting to breath a bit easier with six of seven wins, and the front and backcourts producing at an efficient clip. Is the loss at Clemson a bump in the road, or a sign of things to come? Along with the points above, here are a couple more factors to consider for tomorrow evening:

  • The Tar Heels win with two producers in the paint. Can Day’Ron Sharpe build on his 16-point performance Tuesday, and who joins him?
  • With Duke built different than UNC, what will be the defensive matchups?
  • Can Carolina stop a team from hanging their offensive hats from the three-point line?
  • Will Walton, Love, and Davis find a way to beat the defense?
  • What roles will Leaky Black and Andrew Platek fill? Overall contributors or defensive specialists?

In coach-speak, this game is just like any other. But we know that is not true. This year more than others, there are more serious consequences for the Blue Devils if they lose. With a Carolina win, Duke will be .500 overall and in conference play, while UNC will remain in contention for a desired top four ACC standings spot. It means that the Tar Heels are still in the NCAA Tournament conversation, while the Blue Devils are stuck on the outside looking in. Will the Tar Heels make it hurt for the Blue Devils Saturday night? If we get the offense from the NC State game, the defense from the Wake Forest game, and the intensity of a typical Carolina-Duke game, UNC can make it happen tomorrow evening.