On Wednesday, UNC makes its annual trek down 15-501 to Durham to take on the Blue Devils in Cameron.
As we’ve pointed out before, there is a typical pattern in Duke-UNC games. One team rides an emotional surge to an early lead, then the other team battles back and soon the game settles down to be fairly close to the end. This happens almost every time.
Although there’s a chance that Duke could explode on UNC, and a somewhat smaller chance that UNC could explode on Duke, this year will probably follow the script.
UNC has had an interesting season. The Tar Heels started out highly rated then had some slippage then found their footing. After a recent ACC win (we can’t remember over who), Ol’ Roy Williams told his opposite that he thought his team was good enough to win a national championship.
Not exactly the humble words you expect from a winning coach, but no doubt he was excited in the heat of the moment and he’s probably not too far off.
Leaving UNC out of it for now, the obvious title contenders are Duke, Tennessee, Gonzaga, Virginia, Kentucky, Michigan and possibly Nevada.
UNC is not far from that level if they aren’t there already.
The Tar Heels lost non-conference games to Texas, Michigan and Kentucky and ACC games to Louisville and Virginia.
You can toss the Texas game out as an outlier. Keeping that in mind, consider this: against Kentucky, UNC’s sensational freshman Cody White scored eight. Against Louisville he had four. Against Michigan he had 16 and against Virginia he had 17 but shot just 6-19 and of those 19 11 were three point attempts. He also took nearly 30 percent of UNC’s shots in that game and scored about a third of the Tar Heel total of 61 as well.
White has proven to be a sensational guard but it seems clear that a key to stopping UNC is stopping White. Not that that’ll be easy.
Williams has said that his offense can never go fast enough but he said this past week that the two guards he’s had who are best at running his team at a high rate of speed are Ty Lawson and White.
Duke has at least four defenders it can use on White - Tre Jones, who has proven to be a superb defensive point guard, RJ Barrett, whose defense gets overshadowed by his offense, Cam Reddish and, off the bench, Jordan Goldwire.
We didn’t mention Zion OMG Williamson here but we’re confident Williamson can guard any player in college basketball. There are just better ways to use him.
White is UNC’s most promising player, aside from perhaps Nassir Little, who has been coming off the bench, but Luke Maye and Cam Johnson are also major concerns.
Everyone respects what Maye has accomplished in college. He has a lifetime highlight with his shot against Kentucky a couple of years ago and has proven to be a solid player from the perimeter and closer to the basket. He’s averaging 16.3 ppg and 9.6 rpg. He’s the very definition of a self-made player because the guy is not particularly athletic. He’s just worked his ass off to get here.
He has struggled with athletic defenders however.
Johnson, who didn’t particularly stand out at Pitt, has emerged as a real force for UNC. He’s 6-8 with guard skills and he can really shoot it. Our guess is that Duke will rotate a lot but Williamson will probably get Maye and Reddish will probably start on Johnson, although it could be Barrett.
UNC has a bit of a mismatch in the backcourt if Jones takes White: White is 6-5 and running mate Kenny Williams is 6-4. That would put Jones on a bigger guard and either Barrett or Reddish on a smaller guy unless Duke decides to flip that assignment.
That seems unlikely though: Jones always takes the best ball handler and Williams is averaging 8.9 ppg with a season high of 16. Height isn’t everything.
UNC also starts 6-9 Garrison Brooks, who is a rough statistical analog to Duke’s Marques Bolden.
Brooks averages 8.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.5 apg and a half a block. Bolden is putting up 5.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg and two blocks.
Bolden is a bit bigger at 6-11 and more of a defensive force.
Typically UNC would have a significant advantage from the bench but this year Williams has a bit less useful depth than usual and that’s compounded by injuries. Sophomore big man Sterling Manley has not played since December with a knee issue and versatile reserve Leaky Black hasn’t played since the end of January after hurting his ankle.
Little played two minutes against Virginia and 11 against Wake Forest. He’s overcoming an ankle injury too and Johnson has been dealing with a lingering ankle injury as well.
At 6-7, Black could come in with Johnson and Little and give Duke’s three freshmen forwards an intriguing challenge.
Even with the injuries, UNC has continued to improve.
Then again, so has Duke.
The Blue Devils have had a rugged stretch lately. They were offensively brilliant against Virginia in Charlottesville. The Louisville game will be remembered for the spectacular 23 point comeback in the last 9:00 but the first 31 minutes were a nightmare as the Cardinals dominated the Blue Devils. And while Duke controlled the NC State game from start to finish, Barrett and Bolden both played sick.
The Carolina game requires immense energy and effort. Having coached in so many of them we know that Coach K realizes this and we presume he has adjusted things accordingly. Practice may be lighter with more focus on video and other things.
UNC has a big advantage here because Wake Forest was essentially a joke of a scrimmage. They’ll be rested.
So what to expect? Well, the usual intensity of course. Duke obviously has a pulsating home court advantage and that really matters, never more so than in this game. Three point shooting will also be key. Duke will have to control White, Maye and Johnson from outside and then hit a few themselves.
This game may come down to defense and if it does, that may favor the more athletic Blue Devils. However, neither team can afford to get into foul trouble and if either does, it’s a huge problem.
We’re not sure how healthy Little is but he’s athletic enough to present problems for either Barrett or Reddish depending on how UNC decides to use him and assuming it’s man to man.
We’ll also be interested to see how UNC decides to defend Williamson. Maye is crafty but far less athletic. Johnson and Little are too thin and Brooks isn't nearly quick enough. Williamson presents some very serious problems for UNC and may lead Ol’ Roy to some unusual defensive solutions. We don’t think he’ll go full Valvano and pull a Box and One or a Triangle and Two or anything but we’re sure we’ll see some different tactics Wednesday.
If Duke does win, it’s going to be very difficult for UNC or Virginia to catch the Blue Devils.