9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: North Carolina -6.5, Over/Under: 162.5
College Basketball’s most storied rivalry adds another chapter tonight as the twentieth-ranked Duke Blue Devils make the short trek to Chapel Hill to face the fifth-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels in the first of their two annual regular season meetings. After winning their fifth NCAA Championship under Mike Krzyzewski, the Blue Devils (19-6, 8-4, 5th in ACC) have successfully put together a quick rebuild around some talented young players, even if they’ve enjoyed the expected growing pains along the way. After all, did their prized collection of youngsters not mature as the previous season progressed along? With Sophomore Guard Grayson Allen the lone contributor from last year’ champions, Coach K’s young charges have sent the lion’s share of the current campaign building chemistry with each other, which based off of their latest string of performances seems to finally be bearing fruit. After getting off to a torrid 14-2 start in which they had ascended to Seventh in the Polls, Duke went into a startling funk, where they proceeded to drop four out five games, including three in a row at one point. In fact, the skid marked the first time that the program had fell completely out of the Polls altogether in nearly elven years. However, Krzyzewski and his Staff were able to figure things out, doubling down on a shorter rotation, which has perpetuated serious growth, coinciding with a four-game winning streak. Outlasting an embattled Louisville team dealing with the aftermath of self-imposed sanctions proved their mettle (72-65), before hosting Virginia in Durham, North Carolina; the Devils overcame a three-point Halftime deficit, en route to outscoring the Cavaliers 32-28 over the final twenty minutes of a narrow 63-62 victory. Despite allowing the visiting side to shoot a solid 48.1% from the field, the hosts kept them in check on the perimeter, yielding only two three-pointers out of eleven attempts (18.2%). And speaking of the money ball, that is precisely where the game was won; Duke managed to drain eight of their twenty-two attempts (36.4%), outscoring their rivals from Charlottesville by eighteen points in that regard. Stud Freshman Forward Brandon Ingram continued to get better with each passing contest, scoring a game-high twenty-five points on 10-of-22 shooting from the field (45.5%), including 4-of-9 from beyond the arc (44.4%), along with seven rebounds and an assist. The aforementioned Allen added fifteen points, seven boards, seven assists, and a pair of steals, while Junior Guard Matt Jones caught fire from distance, with a dozen of his fourteen points coming via the three (4-of-5, 80.0%). With that said, they received absolutely nothing offensively from their Bench, with Krzyzewski only employing two of his reserves. And therein lies the conundrum of this team; while a seriously abridged rotation has spelled more minutes for the likes of Allen and Ingram, allowing them to flourish into arguably the ACC’s top tandem (37.8 points combined), the clear lack of depth is a serious concern as the NCAA Tournament creeps closer and closer. Just how short has their rotation become, you ask? During conference play, the Blue Devils have only six players logging double-digit minutes, with the gap between the sixth and seventh players standing at a staggering 19.6 minutes per game. The loss of Senior Forward Amile Jefferson, one of the few holdovers from last year’s unit, was a huge reason for their midseason swoon, and with his return nowhere in sight, it’s unrealistic to think that Coach K will be utilizing anymore of charges than he has been recently. Jefferson was posting averages of 11.4 points and a team-high 10.3 rebounds before injury, and with his absence, Ingram has been forced to play as a Stretch Four, affording the luxury of another shooter on the floor, creating better spacing in the process. As a result, Duke has been one of the most efficient offensive teams in the ACC, averaging 77.5 points (3rd in ACC) on 47.8% shooting from the field (2nd in ACC), including 54.3% from within the three-point arc (1st in ACC) and 39.4% beyond it (2nd in ACC). However, the trade-off has been a lack of size, which has made them susceptible on the defensive end; allowing 71.7 points (8th in ACC) on 44.6% shooting from the floor (8th in ACC) is simply not up to the standards set by Krzyzewski, particularly with his charges giving up the third-most two-point field goals (265) in league play. This is not good news with the Tar Heels on tap, who possess a plethora of size capable of pummeling them in the painted area.
Meanwhile, their counterparts in a lighter shade of blue are looking to put their own midseason slide behind them, as the Tar Heels (21-4, 10-2, 1st in ACC) look to string together consecutive victories after losing back-to-back outings for the first time this season. Yet another team to fall ill after securing the top ranking in the Polls, North Carolina plummeted to ninth in the rankings after losses to Louisville (65-71) and Notre Dame (76-80), but has since rebounded with victories over the conference’s weaker fare, Boston College (68-65) and Pittsburgh (85-64). There was very little the Panthers could do to slow down Roy Williams’ charges last weekend, as the visiting side was very nearly ran out of the Dean Dome in the First Half, trailing 42-29 at the midway point. Simply put, Sunday’s performance was a reminder of what this team can do when they’re firing on all cylinders; the home side shot a blistering 59.3% from the field, including 61.5% from inside the three-point arc, with five different players scoring in double-figures, led by Forward Brice Johnson (nineteen points). Hell, they even made it rain from beyond the arc, where they have once again struggled this season, netting eight of their fifteen attempts (53.3%). Senior Point Guard Marcus Paige was 3-of-6 from distance (50.0%), which is a welcome sign for a player that has struggled with his consistency all year. Sustaining foot and hand injuries has left his play thus far with a lot to be desired, averaging 13.0 points on just 41.8% shooting from the field, with 3.7 assists to boot. In his absence, Williams has deployed Sophomore Guard Joel Berry at the point, which has in turn created the opportunity to play both players in tandem now that Paige has returned to health. Berry has logged 12.5 points 3.8 assists, and 1.8 steals in conference play, and has alleviated some of the pressure off Paige’s shoulders in terms of running the offense and providing a threat from three. Between them, Paige and Berry have shot 31.5% and 34.7% respectively from three, with no other player remotely approaching 25.0%. So why is this so important, you ask? North Carolina has long been one of the most prolific teams in the country at scoring in the painted area, which is a helluva lot easier to do when defenses have to honor the perimeter. No team in the conference has scored more two-point field goals (300) than Williams’, who have also done a stellar job of defending it, yielding a scant 43.2% shooting in that area (1st in ACC). The aforementioned Johnson has had a lot to do with that, as the Senior leads the team in scoring (16.6), rebounding (10.4), and blocks (1.6). Furthermore, his PER (Player Efficiency Rating) of 30.8 is one of the highest such figures in the country. Which is all the more reason for his cohorts on the perimeter to make the most out of their opportunities so that he has the requisite space to operate. Of course, Johnson and Co. aren’t relegated to scoring in the halfcourt, for under Williams’ watch they’ve long been one of the most devastating teams in transition. Tempo is a term often used when describing the Heels, who push the issue whenever they can. Criticize them for not having blue-chip recruits like Ingram if you want, but these kids can still fly up and down the court; at 65.6 field goal attempts per game, North Carolina does a fine job of pushing the tempo and creating extra possessions and shots for themselves, taking an average of 3.7 field goals than their opponents. Forcing an ACC-best 14.4 turnovers per game helps out quite a bit too, by the way, which could loom large against the young Blue Devils, who haven’t done nearly enough of that themselves (9.9, 14th in ACC).