I still can’t believe this is actually happening.
After 100 years and 256 meetings, UNC and Duke are finally playing each other in the Final Four. We don’t get the rivalry-ending national championship game that some have been craving for some twisted reason, but the Final Four is as close to it as it gets. Sure, the Heels have a first-year head coach in Hubert Davis, so it doesn’t have quite the same potency as a Coach K vs. Roy Williams matchup, but he was good enough to get the team to New Orleans, so does it matter? I’ll leave that for you to decide, but remember: one team has a lot more to lose in this game, and it is not the Tar Heels.
After facing each other twice already, we already know how these two teams match up. However, both UNC and Duke have gotten substantially better in the postseason. As of right now, the Blue Devils are the four-point favorites according to DraftKings.com. Let’s discuss how the Heels can take down Duke and move on to the national championship game (I still can’t believe I’m typing those words).
Protecting the paint
I’ve watched Duke closely in this tournament, and I have to say: they have become nearly unstoppable when they drive to the rim. A lot of that has to do with Mark Williams, who just lit up Arkansas for 12 points while staying perfect from the field. While that doesn’t sound like much, it needs to be understood that his points against the Razorbacks, as well as against Texas Tech, came during very critical parts of the game, and is largely why the Blue Devils are here. Throw in Jeremy Roach who has been a beast getting to the rim, and Paolo Banchero who is doing what he’s good at, and you have a very big problem for UNC to deal with.
While I would love to say that the Heels are more equipped to deal with what Duke has been able to do, they did get lit up by Williams and Jeremy Roach in Cameron Indoor Stadium. If the Heels want to pull off a win, they will need to figure out how to force Duke to make shots from the perimeter. It almost makes me ill to say this, but Hubert Davis may want to consider throwing in some zone defense to throw the Blue Devils off if they start to get too comfortable driving to the basket. If they can turn Duke into a jump shooting team, I like the Heels’ odds of winning this game.
Staying out of foul trouble
Another way that the Heels can help themselves in this game is to keep Duke from getting to the free throw line. In their win against the Blue Devils in Cameron, the Heels only sent them to the foul line for eight free throws, which played a big role in the game. UNC got to the line quite a bit, making 19 of their 22 free throw attempts. If it weren’t for their ability to get to the line, as well as their ability to keep Duke from doing the same, things probably would’ve went much different than they did.
The great news is that the Tar Heels have shot way more free throws than their opponents throughout the NCAA Tournament. During the most recent game against Saint Peter’s, UNC allowed the Peacocks to shoot 10 free throws, while they shot 21 attempts themselves. Giving Duke a security deposit by fouling them is a really bad idea, so the Heels will need to be very careful on defense (and if we’re being honest, on offense as well).
Catching fire from deep
Aside from AJ Griffin, I still don’t trust this Duke team from the perimeter. It’s fair to point out that more often than not he has been enough because of how excellent of a shooter he is, but he had a very bad time dealing with Leaky Black in Cameron. On the flip side, UNC did a fair amount of damage from deep against the Blue Devils in the most recent meeting — they made nine of their 23 three-point attempts, with Brady Manek doing a bulk of the damage. It’s safe to say that Manek is the most likely candidate to have a good shooting night in this one, but the real question is who will join him? Unfortunately that is a tough question to answer, but also it’s a good problem to have.
Throughout the NCAA Tournament, Caleb Love and RJ Davis have had some really good shooting nights. The game against Saint Peter’s was the exception, as Davis couldn’t get anything going from deep, and Love was only able to knock down two three-pointers. Usually games like this lead to one or both of these guys catching fire in the following game, but it’s hard to not still be a little nervous. UNC needs to knock down threes against the Blue Devils, or else they may have to go home with one of the most devastating losses in school history. I hate how exaggerated that sounds, but seriously, this is why nobody wanted this game.
Dig out your lucky clothes, send bad luck friends and family away for the weekend, and keep 911 on speed dial. This is about to be one of the most stressful games of all time.