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RJ Barrett’s Fouls Against UNC And How They Changed The Game

Barrett’s early foul trouble limited his ability to attack UNC and had a knock-on effect on the rest of Duke’s offense

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Duke v North Carolina
CHAPEL HILL, NORTH CAROLINA - MARCH 09: RJ Barrett #5 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after a play against the North Carolina Tar Heels during their game at Dean Smith Center on March 09, 2019 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The legend of TV Ted Valentine is long and infamous. I won’t deign to provide him more publicity by listing his antics and history of questionable calls. But, unfortunately, he reared his head in the latest installment of the Duke-UNC rivalry, and arguably influenced the game more with his whistle than many in uniform did with their play.

I imagine everyone reading this knows what call I refer to in the title: the charge on RJ Barrett with under two minutes to go in the first half that constituted his third foul. Was it a charge? At best, it was a questionable call, the proverbial “50-50” block-charge call. It isn’t worth relitigating the validity of the call, or Barrett’s other two charges, here. (All that’s worth saying on the subject is this: most basketball analysts agree that the so-called “50-50” calls tend to be called blocks more often than not, but over the course of one game Barrett had three of four such calls called against him. Just another bit of abnormal probability in a snake-bitten season.) What is worth a more detailed look is how that call shifted the course of college basketball’s most storied rivalry.

In the first half, Barrett was 4-for-10 from the floor, totaling nine points and three assists. But where he took those shots was telling of his aggressive outlook. Five of Barrett’s ten shots were at the rim, another was a floater in the paint, and yet another was a mid-range jumper. All of those shots are indicative of a player who knew he was best suited getting to the rim against an undersized defender (for all the effusive praise for the Tar Heels’ Kenny Williams, he does only stand 6-foot-4 to Barrett’s 6-foot-7) and a team that doesn’t have an elite shot blocker.

But Barrett’s ability to penetrate had important secondary effects, as is usual. It’s no coincidence that one of the best halfs of Cam Reddish’s Duke career came as Barrett attacked the rim. Not only did this open up Reddish beyond the arc (where he was 3-for-6), but the increased attention paid to Barrett opened up cutting lanes for Reddish, where he was able to make some pretty finishes and also draw multiple important fouls on UNC stars Luke Maye and Cam Johnson.

Now, what about the second half, where Barrett was visibly more timid given his reluctance to pick up a fourth foul? Barrett only attempted three shots at the rim in the later stanza, making only one of those layups, and only made it to the free throw line once. Meanwhile, he took and missed five jumpers in the paint (that, without the fear of a charge, perhaps he takes all the way to the rim). He also only had one assist. And how did this influence Reddish? His struggles in the second half were conspicuous, especially juxtaposed with his first half transcendence. Reddish was 1-for-12 from the field, including 0-6 from beyond the arc, and those looks weren’t nearly as open as those he got in the first half.

There are a plethora of “what-if” scenarios that can be played out from Saturday night’s game. What if Duke had Zion? That could conceivably be answered this Friday night. What if Duke hadn’t been jolted by another injury to a key starter moments into the game? Bolden could have opened up more offensive opportunities for his teammates by drawing the defensive attention in the paint that Javin DeLaurier doesn’t. But the most painful for Duke fans is likely, what if Duke’s best player wasn’t saddled with three fouls for the key stretch in the second half where UNC opened up a lead? That might never be answered, but Barrett’s dichotomous first and second half shot charts certainly indicate that, at minimum, Duke’s offense would’ve looked much different, and likely much more efficient.

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