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UNC Basketball at Duke: Three Things to Watch

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There might as well be three HUNDRED, but the boards, the defensive effort, and veteran leadership will be key on Grayson Allen’s Senior Night.

NCAA Basketball: Duke at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In every UNC-Duke game, there is a heightened attention to detail. There are a million things to watch for and you notice them all. “Oh, I missed that” is not a phrase a Carolina fan utters. Not during a Duke game. Specific, often superfluous, details stand out and are imprinted in your mind forever. I remember the little smirk Matt Doherty had on his face when Battier fouled Haywood in 2001. I remember how much the TV cameras shook when Felton picked up his dribble in 2005. I remember that when Marvin Williams made the and-one, a cutaway of the Duke bench showed one benchwarmer staring out at the UNC crowd with his mouth agape.

Those are the little things that stick with you forever. Here are the big ones:

The Glass Will Be Key Once Again

As you might have heard, this UNC squad is rather good at this rebounding thing. The Tar Heels lead the nation in rebounding margin, in spite of their small ball starting lineup and inexperienced front line. The untrained eye might wonder how a team lacking in elite size has managed this. Look no further than the first matchup with Duke for your answer:

The Blue Devils boast the best big man tandem in college basketball, with Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter wreaking havoc on opponents for most of the year. But the Heels outrebounded the Dookies 44-38 in the first matchup and grabbed an astonishing 20 offensive rebounds. They did this by a total commitment to crashing the boards on both ends and putting more than one body on the Duke bigs for box-outs and tip-outs. In football, they talk about gang tackling a bigger player. UNC gang rebounded the bigger Blue Devils. Cameron Johnson had a brilliant game on the glass in the first outing, ripping down 13 rebounds, six of them offensive. His activity on the interior helped both to neutralize Carter and Bagley’s size advantage and also win Carolina new possessions.

The Tar Heels shot 39% from the field on February 8th and the Blue Devils shot 48%. How’d the Tar Heels win? Because they took 77 shots to Duke’s 62. Offensive rebounding and a lack of turnovers (2 all game!!!) allowed this. Carolina has about as much chance of repeating that 2-turnover performance as Ja’Quan Newton does of hitting that shot again. But the rebounding edge is something they might well have again. And winning that battle is essential against a fired-up Duke team playing at home.

Will Carolina Bring It Defensively?

The Tar Heels’ January defense returned on Tuesday night. The Heels were helpless to stop the Hurricanes at times and gave up 92 points to a team that, quite frankly, isn’t that great offensively. Yes, the Canes pitched a damn near perfect game (55% Fg, 50% from 3, 12-13 FT), but Carolina’s defense was porous against the drive and the Heels struggled to get stops when they had to. UNC’s struggles to defend the rim are well-documented, but they had shown improvement during their six game win streak. Miami’s success with the drive was a reminder that this can still be an Achilles heel.

If UNC is going to sweep the season series against Duke, they’ll require a top-level defensive performance, much like the one they showed in the 2nd half against the Blue Devils in the first meeting. Carolina came storming out of the halftime locker room and their defensive effort was the catalyst. Duke had scored 49 points in the first half and was getting whatever it wanted in the paint. But UNC took away their high-low post attack and did a far better job of choking off the drive.

Late in the 2nd half, Carolina went cold offensively, going scoreless for about five and a half minutes, from the 8:42 mark to the 3:12 mark. But they kept guarding and Duke only managed six points of their own in the period. When Cam Johnson’s three-pointer swished in, everyone in the building knew it was curtains for the Blue Devils: The Heels had weathered the storm. That kind of effort may well be called upon to see Saturday night’s game through.

Whose Seniors Will Deliver Under Pressure?

At times during Tuesday’s game, it sure looked like the pressure to win on Senior Night was affecting Theo Pinson and Joel Berry. Pinson made some truly awful turnovers, Berry took some ill-advised shots, and that veteran poise that they have shown so often this season seemed to be lacking. Of course, both players locked back in and led a brilliant comeback (had we gone to overtime, Berry’s shot would’ve been played before every UNC home game for years to come), but the Senior Night jitters were there.

If you think OUR guys were facing pressure, consider the case of Grayson Allen. The most controversial Dookie this side of Redick is playing his final home game against a Tar Heel team that 1) Has already beaten him this year, 2) Is the defending national champion, and 3) Features a pair of seniors who have, up to this point, enjoyed more decorated careers than he has.

In 2006, JJ Redick set college basketball on fire, breaking 30 points over and over again, and shooting the ball like few have ever done before or since. But towards the end of the regular season, he started to fall off, prompting the infamous “Emotional Fatigue” excuse from Darth K. That fatigue culminated in his famous Senior Night defeat. The story is different now: Grayson Allen is not showing signs of fatigue. He’s played his best ball of the season in the last few weeks, particularly with Marvin Bagley out. Pressure seems to be driving him forward, rather than causing him to retreat. It makes for one heck of a showdown between him, Berry, and Pinson.

In the first matchup, Berry provided the scoring and Pinson provided his countless little Theo things that we couldn’t have done without. Allen was largely a non-factor, tallying just 9 points on 3-9 shooting. But now Allen is at home, and the Tar Heels are the ones going into the Devil’s Den. Of the Tar Heels on the current roster, only two of them have walked onto Coach K Court and gotten out with a win: Berry and Pinson. If they can do it again, it would easily make up for the closure they didn’t get on their own Senior Night, and send them off on a high note.