This Saturday, the North Carolina Tar Heels will welcome No. 9 Duke into the Dean Smith Center in the first game of the annual Blue Blood rivalry home and home series. At the moment, the series record is 141-114 in favor of the Tar Heels, who also won both games last season. To go back a bit further, UNC has won six of the last 10 games that have taken place since they won the national championship, re-establishing some kind of balance in what was becoming a weirdly lopsided rivalry in favor of the Blue Devils.
Saturday night should (hopefully) be a good game, but there are two key components that will come into play that has nothing to do with the players on the court. This will not only be Hubert Davis’ first time entering the game as a head coach, but it will be Coach K’s last time coaching it in the Smith Center. It’s a very “speeding bullet meets immovable object” situation, and only one team can come out victorious. On paper, I can say that I’m very concerned about the Tar Heels, but they also are undefeated at home. Meanwhile, Duke has won two road games in a row, but they haven’t been strangers to taking unranked L’s either. In fact, all three of their losses so far this season have been to unranked teams. Oof.
With that said, I wanted to discuss what I like, what I don’t like, and what may ultimately decide the outcome of this game. Without further ado, let’s dive in.
What I like
When discussing what I like about the Heels’ chances against Duke, it all starts on the perimeter. As of right now, the Heels are shooting 38.5% from deep, which is good enough for 16th in the country according to the NCAA’s website. The only team that is shooting better than the Heels from three-point land in the ACC right now is Clemson, who only lost by two points when they played Duke on January 25th. This should likely be the Heels’ primary plan of attack, because Duke is almost certainly prepared to be physical with Bacot all night long, and we all know they also like to jump into a 2-3 zone when they are getting destroyed in the paint.
Another thing that I like about this matchup is that Leaky Black is starting to play with a lot more confidence, giving the Heels another weapon on the floor. Black is currently shooting a career-high 47.8% from the field, and is knocking down 42.9% of his three-pointers, leading the team in that department among active players. Granted, he hasn’t taken that many shots from behind the arc (21), but it doesn’t matter that much considering how he’s been playing lately. Now that Leaky is essentially a third point guard, someone that can rebound, is one of the team’s best defenders, and is now scoring the ball, it adds a much-needed element to this Carolina offense.
Finally, I like how Caleb Love and RJ Davis match up against Jeremy Roach and Trevor Keels. As we saw last season, Love has a very unique hatred for Duke (as we all do), and it showed in every element of his game. This same level of play from Love showed up in the UNC/NC State game this past weekend when he went off for 21 points and only missed two of his six shots from three-point range. RJ Davis is also a lot better than last season, and he has been playing with a lot more control at the point guard position over the last few games. Jeremy Roach to me isn’t the most impressive guard I’ve ever seen, and Trevor Keels had a rough outing against Notre Dame after returning from his injury. If we get the best versions of Love and Davis, it’ll give the Heels their best shot at winning this game.
What I don’t like
Oh wait, I have to say more? Alright, here we go I guess.
Duke’s star freshman Paolo Banchero is likely haunting Hubert Davis in his sleep this week, and probably should be haunting Brady Manek. It pains me to be too complimentary of Duke players, but Banchero is a stud — the 6’10 Seattle resident is currently averaging 17.8 points and 8.3 rebounds, all while shooting 49.6% from the field. In his most recent performance against Notre Dame, he finished with 21 points and nine rebounds, though he did manage to turn the ball over five times. Still, every time I’ve watched this guy play, he’s looked like a NBA player in the making. I hate how he matches up with Manek, and the only solution I can think of is having Black guard him. We’ll see what Davis decides.
Should Davis decide to keep Manek on Banchero...just know that there is a reason. Duke’s other impressive freshman is A.J. Griffin, who is a 6’6 wing who is destroying teams from the perimeter. Right now he is averaging 50%(!!!) from deep, hasn’t had a bad shooting outing yet. What’s weird to me is that his nine points per game doesn’t tell the story of how good he is, and it’s beyond me why Coach K wouldn’t get him involved in the offense more. Regardless, the Heels have to account for him all throughout the game, otherwise he may send Coach K off into the sunset with one last win in the Dean Dome. Oh, also, there’s also this guy named Wendell Moore that is a major problem now. Just in case we needed to make matchups even worse.
Finally, the Blue Devils are ranked in the top 15 in both adjusted offense and defense according to KenPom. That makes them the best team in in the conference in both measurements, which to give a comparison: the next-highest team in adjusted defense is Wake Forest. The scariest aspect will definitely be Duke’s offense, because the Heels have played teams ranked higher than them in adjusted offense in Purdue and Kentucky, but both teams scored over 90 points in those games. If UNC doesn’t stay locked in on both sides of the ball, this game may be the grand finale for Coach K in Chapel Hill that Blue Devils fans are hoping for.
What could decide it all
This seems like a weird thing to say, but I feel this game will ultimately be decided by which Carolina team shows up. Here’s the thing: we’ve seen some really good performances from this team, and almost all of them have been at home. There are only two teams that managed to score 70+ points against the Heels in the Dean Dome, and they were NC State and Brown. In the case of the State game, The Heels were up 92-62 with four minutes left in the game, and the Wolfpack didn’t crack 70 until Hubert Davis sent in the subs. If the Heels can play a high level of defense, and also produce on offense at a high level, they very well could come away with the upset, and send Coach K home forever having to live with the fact that his final game in Chapel Hill was a loss.
Overall, what I’m hoping for the most is that we get to see the usual, highly-competitive, super entertaining game that we are accustomed to seeing. I’ll be honest: I don’t feel great about this one, but the Heels could get the job done. Now let’s wait and see if they actually will.