9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Duke -8.5
Another chapter in College Basketball’s most storied rivalry takes place tonight in Durham, as the surging fourth-ranked Duke Blue Devils host the sliding fifteenth-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels. After amassing one of the higher-profiled recruiting classes in his history at the program, which is really saying something, Mike Krzyzewski has his team in familiar place once again, vying for dominance in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Duke (22-3, 9-3 in ACC) currently trails Virginia by two games in league play, while sitting mere percentage points behind Notre Dame, but must feel comfortable after defeating both teams over the course of the last five outings. Winners of eight of their last nine contests, including five straight, the young Blue Devils are growing up before our eyes, which was evident in their 80-72 victory at the Carrier Dome this past Saturday against Syracuse. Trailing the Orange 39-36 at Halftime, Coach K’s charges rallied behind star Freshman Jahlil Okafor to outscore the hosts 44-33 over the final twenty minutes. Okafor amassed twenty-three points on 10-of-15 shooting from the field (66.7%), along with thirteen rebounds and a block, dismantling Syracuse’s vaunted Two-Three Zone Defense from the inside. As a team, the Devils attacked the interior of the Zone relentlessly, shooting 20-of-42 from within the three-point arc (47.6%) opposed to 7-of-15 from beyond it (46.7%), but the biggest impact came from the charity stripe; in most cases, the home team often gets the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the disparity in fouls, but that simply wasn’t the case at the Carrier Dome, where the visitors shot twenty-two free-throws to the home side’s thirteen, outscoring them by thirteen points in that regard. Hell, Quinn Cook was 7-of-8 from the line himself (87.5%), outscoring the Orange as a whole. However, they were sloppy early, committing a total of fifteen turnovers on the night, before eventually calming down in the second half. If they are to knock off their longtime rivals tonight, they must make a concerted effort to start the game in a more controlled manner, or else things could get out of hand quickly.
In a series that has been personified by it’s even nature, The Blue Devils trail 43-44 over the past eighty-seven meetings, despite outscoring the Tar Heels overall by a scant six points. To bring the record to a dead lock, the aforementioned Okafor is going to need to play like the potential No. One Pick in the NBA Draft that many pundits expect him to be. The 6-11, 270 lbs, technically sound big man leads the team with 18.2 points on 66.5% shooting from the field, along with 9.3 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 1.5 blocks, with nine double-doubles on the year. In fact, he leads the ACC in scoring, field goal percentage, and offensive rebounding, on track to become the first Freshman in the history of the program to do so. Opponents have responded by playing very physically with him, and sending him to the line where he has shot a pedestrian 57.1%, but to his credit he has done a tremendous job of recognizing that and finding his teammates for open looks on the perimeter. And therein lies the key to tonight’s game; if Duke is successful from beyond the arc, then they will likely send North Carolina to their fourth loss in five games. Over the past twenty meetings, each team has won ten games apiece, but in Duke’s ten victories they have managed to shoot a solid 40.2% from three, while in their ten losses they could muster just 31.3% from downtown. On the season, Krzyzewski’s kids have shot a stellar 38.1% from three-point land (47th Overall), which is good for second in the ACC. However, unlike many of his past teams, this current incarnation prefers to attack the painted area with Okafor spearheading the attack; at 37.0 points per game, they have scored the third-most points in the paint among teams in major conferences. Duke ranks eight in the league in three-point attempts (18.8), making 7.2 of them (7th in ACC). But with that said, they have done the majority of their damage from the charity stripe, where they rank second in the conference in both free-throws attempted (22.6) and made (16.0). In fact, Okafor alone has attempted 140 freebies alone this season, including a whopping seventy-five against the Atlantic Coast Conference. With opponents sending him to the stripe so frequently, the Frosh has almost single-handedly put teams in the penalty, which of course gives his teammates the green light to attack the paint in an effort to get to the line; fellow Freshman Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow have attempted 110 and 106 free-throws respectively, and happen to shoot a much higher percentage 87.3% and 61.3% respectively. However, Krzyzewski has relied almost exclusively on the strength of his Freshman this season, particularly after the dismissal of Rasheed Sulaimon a month ago. Let’s be clear; this is not a deep basketball team. Only six players see more than 6.6 minutes per game, and four of them are in their first (and likely only) campaign at Duke, meaning that depth could be a real weakness moving forward with the NCAA Tournament looming.
Meanwhile, it’s been tough sledding for North Carolina (18-7, 8-4 in ACC), who have now lost three out of their last four games. Last year at this time, Roy Williams’ charges were hitting their stride, playing their best basketball of the season. However, it’s been a completely different story this time around, for the Tar Heels have been a mess for the past two weeks. Two weeks ago, they blew an eighteen-point, second half lead at Louisville, before falling in Overtime (78-68), before turning around and running out of gas at home against second-ranked Virginia (75-64), and just last weekend got blown out on the road at Pittsburgh (89-76). The Panthers jumped on the sluggish Heels early, outscoring them 48-34 in the first half. Offensively, the visitors were firmly sharp, shooting 49.2% from the field, assisting on all but four of their twenty-nine field goals, and committed a scant four turnovers. However, two persistent problems continue to plague them on this end; they still couldn’t throw the ball into the ocean from the perimeter,shooting a miserable 4-of-15 from three (26.7%), and managed to net just fourteen of their twenty-three free-throws (60.9%). By comparison, Pittsburgh outscored them by twelve from downtown alone. But then again, defending appeared to be a foreign concept altogether for UNC, as they permitted a stunning 64.9% from the field, and an even more shocking 69.0% from within the three-point line. Given that the Tar Heels only committed fifteen personal fouls, it’s a clear indication that they offered very little resistance, if any, at the rim. Forwards Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks accounted for thirty-four points, but looked disinterested as the home side had their way with a typically staunch group of bigs.
So what in the name of the late, great Dean Smith is going on in Chapel Hill, you ask? Well, many of North Carolina’s problems ca be traced to their continued futility from beyond the arc and at the charity stripe, while also sporadic lapses on the defensive end. There is very little balance offensively for this team, who score a whopping 61.2% of their points off two-point field goals, with 48.8% of that figure coming in the paint, with both numbers ranking second overall among major conference teams. Furthermore, at 38.4 points in the paint per game, the Heels score more points in that area than any of their counterparts. As usual, Williams’ charges work the glass harder than most scoring 14.5 second-chance points, also most in the nation, leading to a very healthy plus-12.8 differential in terms of points in the paint (2nd Overall). However, only 17.4% of their Offenaive production comes via the three, which is last among contemporaries from major conferences. Granted, they don’t take (13.9) or make many (4.6) of them, but shooting a mere 32.9% from long-range (233rd Overall) isn’t going to cut it, particularly when they’re facing an opponent that can ligh them like Duke. In fact,the Blue Devils have won fifteen consecutive meetings in this series in which they have shot over 40.0% from three. So why can’t this team drain the money ball like so many of their opponents? The answer lies with Marcus Paige, who they happen to rely almost exclusively from to make three-pointers. The Junior has attempted 160 three-pointers, with no other Tar Heel surpassing 53 attempts, and his sixty makes are thirty-nine more than the closest teammate. In short, defenses know that he is the only player in the rotation that they need to worry about over eighteen feet away from the rim. And after a stellar Sophomore display, Paige hasn’t lived up the lofty expectations helped upon him in the Preseason; at a slight 6-1, the Point Guard has endured a number of ailments, ranging from sprained ankles to plantar fasciitis in his foot. As a result, his numbers represent a significant drop-off from the previous campaign; Paige has averaged 13.9 points on 40.0% shooting from the field, including 37.5% from three, along with 2.9 rebounds, 4.2 assists, and 1.4 steals per game. Williams has gone so far as to play him off the ball more often with fellow Point Guard Nate Beitt sharing in the playmaking duties, but defenses have slowly figured that out. Then there is the struggles from the line; North Carolina have had no problem getting to the line (23.8) or even making a high volume of them (16.4), but at just 69.2% (168th Overall), they could stand to gain a lot more, which would come in handy given their ineptitude from the three. Expect them to attack Duke early and often in the paint, trying get Okafor into foul trouble, and testing their depth. After all, no team in the ACC has relinquished more points in the paint his far than the Blue Devils.