If you believe the hype, the No. 9 Duke is simply polishing his game against, at best, fringe opponents in the ACC as the juggernaut prepares for a deep run in the NCAA Men’s Tournament.
The reality, however, is that Duke struggled to regain its Final Four favorite form after a two-week COVID-19 break just before Christmas.
Since then, the Blue Devils have lost two games – in Miami and at Florida State – and have yet to play the role of the big bad hard-court bully.
The road gets even tougher on Saturday, when Mike Krzyzewski makes his final cross-town appearance at the Dean Smith Center to take on arch-rivals North Carolina.
As it stands, most of the hype surrounding Krzyzewski’s Chapel Hill swansong will be limited to national telecast.
In true form of the Tobacco Road rivalry, the Tar Heels do not plan to officially honor the Hall of Famer; several schools this season gave Krzyzewski gift presentations and standing ovations before the tip.
Still, pomp and circumstance aside, with North Carolina hungry for a CV-building win and Duke looking to turn the proverbial corner to dominance, several variables will need to be in play to emerge victorious.
The case of North Carolina
The Tar Heels are at their best when playing at home (12-0 this season) and thanks to Armando Bacot, a rebounding gobbler who leads the league with 12.6 per game. This stat tends to turn into offense for Bacot and the Tar Heels, and it happens to be the area where Duke can be most sensitive. Bacot is coming off a career-high 22 rebounds in a 90-83 overtime win over Louisville on the road. His teammate Brady Manek tied a season high with 24 points in the win.
That kind of production and intentional focus gives Hubert Davis his best shot at earning his first Quad 1 victory.
Manek’s ability to stretch the defense will likely attract one of Duke’s best rebounders and rim protectors, giving Bacot more opportunities to dominate the offensive glass. Let’s not forget that Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe snatched 12 offensive rebounds in the season opener against Duke. That said, the Wildcats lost, and for the Tar Heels to avoid the same fate, they’ll need Caleb Love to be stellar…again.
In two wins over Duke last season, Love posted a total of 43 points, including 6 for 11 of three and 14 assists. He’ll be eager to shake off the stench of his 3-for-18 shooting performance in the Louisville win. His backcourt teammate RJ Davis was a sniper in three (4 for 8) against the Cards and Leaky Black had one of his best games this season (13 points, five rebounds and four assists).
It’s no secret that Hubert Davis relies heavily on his starters for production, so to say that all five will have to click on all cylinders is no exaggeration. That said, in a game of this magnitude, he will need his bench. That means giving reserve players opportunities and capitalizing on them, especially Kerwin Walton.
By now we all know Duke can score. The Blue Devils boast of being the potential No. 1 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft in Paolo Banchero, whose all-round play makes him the focal point of the opposing team’s defense and thus opens up scoring opportunities for the rest of the Duke stars.
Duke leads the league in points (80.4 per game) and assists (17.5 per game), but it was the Blue Devils defense that took the first step towards returning to its dominant form of pre-COVID-19 break.
The Blue Devils lead the league in blocks (5.5 per game), allow just 64.7 points per game and lock down the three-point line better than any team in the league, limiting opponents to just 29 % this season. In their win over Notre Dame, the ACC’s best three-point shooting team, the Blue Devils held the Irish to 3 for 18 and 43 total points, the Irish’s lowest offensive output at home at the time. of the stopwatch.
Return to Banchero.
To say that his offensive fluidity and versatility have been a problem for opponents this season would be an understatement to say the least, and the fact that he isolates Manek and Bacot on an island bodes very well for Duke. Additionally, the emergence of AJ Griffin has been key to Duke’s offense.
In his last four games, Griffin has scored 55 points and shot 11 of 17 from the three-point line. Trevor Keels is back after his leg injury, Jeremy Roach has stepped in in his absence, and Wendell Moore Jr. is the x factor that pops up every night.
Yes, Duke faces the best rebounding and rebounding team in the ACC, but when you’re close second in that column, you tend to worry less. Mark Williams, the league’s best shot blocker, can neutralize Bacot’s effectiveness, and Duke’s pressure and physicality should slow North Carolina’s backcourt and fastbreak offense.
You’ll likely be overwhelmed by some variation of the “throw the records in this rivalry” message directed at the game, and to a large extent, that’s true.
In a normal year, the Battle of the Blues is the hottest ticket of the college basketball season, with severe dislike among both fanbases, physical altercations between the teams, and even bloodshed in the legendary rivalry.
Add to that the “Coach K’s last run” scenario and the fact that the series is 50-50 in the last 100 meetings, and it only adds to the emotion. Thing is, when said emotions subside in the second TV shutdown, North Carolina will be in trouble.
It’s the same problem that most teams facing the Blue Devils have had this season, and one for which there has been no remedy: Banchero.
Bacot can take on Williams, Love can take on Keels, Black can slow Moore and Davis can spy on Griffin, but Banchero’s size and skill set is a different animal for a team with a short bench. The freshman sometimes has trouble setting up on the perimeter, but when he works backwards he’s unstoppable and the whole offense opens up around him.
The Tar Heels have had lulls at times this season that have blown them up; this type of failure could be catastrophic against Duke’s powerful attack. As North Carolina coach Hubert Davis said of Duke on Thursday, “They’re just dangerous!”
The Tar Heels will need to catch fire from the perimeter and go well north of their 8.4 marks per game average against the league’s stingiest perimeter defense. To be clear: North Carolina can win.
But the truth is, based on all the evidence presented this season, this case is more about what North Carolina will have to do to beat Duke and less about which team has the best chance of winning.
And this is the most damning proof of all.
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