The regular season, mercifully, comes to an end tomorrow night. An seemingly unending roller coaster of ups, downs, highs and lows will come to a halt after the final buzzer tomorrow and mark an end to the COVID season. The Blue Devils, likely out of the running for an NCAA Tournament bid after falling to Georgia Tech earlier in the week, will look to play spoiler to UNC’s undefeated ACC-record at home.
And the Heels?
Well, they’ll try to avoid losing two games in a row for the first time this calendar year. If everything breaks right, they can still slip into the top-4 of the ACC and receive a double-bye in next week’s conference tournament. In order to even make that a possibility, they’ll have to sweep the regular season series with Duke for the just the fourth time this century. (Yes. That stat surprised me too.)
So, here are three things to watch in tomorrow night’s regular season finale.
Random Duke Player Who Has a Career Night
You know how this works. Some fourth scoring option in the starting line-up or third guy off the bench steps into the biggest rivalry in all of college basketball and has a career night. It usually comes from a line-up change since the last meeting between the teams, or a desperate attempt by Coach K to find a spark off a bench which inevitably turns into a raging four-alarm fire.
Last year, it was Justin Robinson going 4-7 from three in 25 minutes despite averaging just over six minutes a game in a mere 15 appearances. Those seven attempts were 33% of his total attempts for the season. That’s just the most recent example.
While it’s almost impossible to predict who that player will be, the Heels may need to find an answer for freshman starting center 7-0, 240-pound Mark Williams. In the first outing he put up two points and eight rebounds in 15 minutes. It was a serviceable performance against UNC’s front line, but that was before Jalen Johnson decided he didn’t like the bench and quit in the middle of the season.
Johnson departed five games ago, in part because of Williams capitalizing on more playing time. In the last six games, Williams is averaging 23.2 mpg, 11.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, and 2.5 bpg. Those are well above his season averages as Duke has embraced the big man patrolling the paint, almost saving their season by going 4-2 in that span.
UNC’s Team vs Duke’s Hurt
This isn’t to imply that Duke isn’t a “team”. They are are simply much more reliant on one main scorer than UNC is. Going on the previous mentioned theme of stepping up when Jalen Johnson left, Hurt could be the poster child for trying to drag an underperforming team to victory.
In his last six games he’s averaging 22.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg, and shooting a silly 59.4% ( 19-32) from deep. The rebounds are a slight drop from his season average, potentially due to Williams’ improvement, but the scoring and shooting are improvements on already formidable season averages of 18.2 points and 45.9% from deep. DJ Steward is the only other Duke player who is averaging double-digits on the season.
That doesn’t mean Hurt will be the only double-digit scorer, but a good assumption that slowing him down is a main priority. To be fair, Hurt only had seven points in the last meeting while five other Blue Devils scored 10+ points. But UNC won, so I’ll accept that as proof that Hurt is the key.
UNC has the opposite “problem”. You have no idea who is going to lead the team in scoring. Maybe that’s because they’re all such nice guys who don’t care who gets the credit. More likely it’s because there has been zero consistent leadership from game to game. Whatever the reason, six players average between a rather tight window of 7.9 points (Walton) to 11.5 points (Brooks). To my knowledge, that would be the lowest scoring average for the team-leader since at least 1950.
Just to drive home this point, in the first meeting six(!) Tar Heels hit double digits, helped in part by some surprising outside shooting. Any reasonable fan knows not to count on that again. Thus the where, how, or who does the scoring will be a fun real-time choose-you-own-adventure.
Adjusting to Foul Trouble
Here’s the deal: neither team finds much success from deep, though Duke’s 35% success rate is better than UNC’s, uh, 30.4%. (That just hurts to even think about). As we all know, thought, UNC has four big men in Brooks, Bacot, Sharpe, and Kessler. Duke has two in Williams and Jaemyn Brakefield. They have another half of a big man in Hurt.
This game, quite frankly, may come down to UNC’s ability (or willingness) to attack the thin Duke front court on offense. The aforementioned outside shooting blunted the inside production last game, but it’s still an overwhelming advantage for the Heels. It also has a tendency to get other team’s in foul trouble. So, while both teams scored 36 points in the paint, the Heels went 13-22 from the foul line compared to Duke’s 4-7 outing. (Note: UNC could also stand to get a little more physical on defense).
Undersized stretch-fours who can’t defend the post (Hurt) tend to struggle. As do post players who are not used to having a literal train of big men thrown at them for 40 consecutive minutes (Williams and Brakefield). Physical disparity and mental fatigue lead to foul trouble, which leads to line-up changes and free throws.
However, against Duke, they also lead to the inevitable switch to small-ball rotations that completely alter tactics in the middle of the game. UNC has historically struggled to acclimate to these mid-game adjustments, often allowing Duke to pull away or make a UNC blow-out closer than it should’ve been. Just as important as imposing their will down low is appropriately handling any Duke response.