Duke’s next basketball game tips off Saturday at 6 P.M. That’s an unusual time for a basketball game to start. But on a scale of strange-things-about-this-game, it barely registers. Unranked Duke hosts unranked North Carolina. Going into the February stretch run, neither team is assured of making the NCAA Tournament, assuming there is one. Cameron Indoor Stadium will be devoid of fans and the tent city outside Cameron never even got started this season.
Mike Krzyzewski met—virtually, of course—with the media Thursday afternoon and recognized that this game is unlike any other Duke-Carolina game.
“A lot of things are diminished through our country. They’re [fans] worried about getting a vaccine or somebody sick or is their kid in school or do I have a job or do I have enough food to eat. There are things going on that are more important than this game. However, the game is really important and hopefully it will provide a sense of enjoyment and relief, release for the people watching it.”
Yes, there will be a game and it will matter. Both teams have shown signs of life in recent weeks but both are coming off disappointing losses, Duke at Miami Monday night, North Carolina at Clemson the following day.
Lots of things will determine the winner Saturday night but the Cameron Crazies won’t be one of them.
“It’s very disappointing and it’s been a huge part of not just basketball – it’s part of Duke,” Krzyzewski said. “Since tenting started, it’s been like a passage, so to speak, where a great percentage of the students that attend Duke have tented. It’s like they’ve made their commitment for life by tenting. Our guys, because we have so many freshmen, they don’t know what it’s like to come to practice every day and have 12 to 15 hundred kids in tents waiting to see them play.”
Matt Hurt does know what that’s like.
“Yeah, it’s going to be a lot weirder. Being a part of the two games last year against UNC, there’s nothing better in sports than that. With no fans, we have to bring our own energy. It’s going to be different, but hopefully we can come out with a W around 8 o’clock on Saturday night.”
Getting that W will require Duke to overcome a Carolina strength that’s been a strength for so long, it’s practically part of their DNA. Carolina rebounds. Even this year, a year with issues in almost every area, Carolina rebounds. In just ACC games the Tar Heels have averaged 42.8 rebounds per game, while allowing opponents to grab 31.6. That 11.2 differential leads the ACC by a huge margin. Louisville is second at 6.1. Duke is fifth at plus 4.2.
The Tar Heels have four rotation players who weigh more than Duke’s heaviest player and four players who average at least 5.8 rebounds per game.
Of course, Mike Krzyzewski has seen this before and shared his thoughts.
“You have to figure out how to counter it with this team and that’s an advantage that they have over us. They’re bigger and more experienced there. You’ve just got to work at it. Hopefully, you can hold your own against them. That and how fast they get the ball down the court are two staples of their program. They were with Dean [Smith] and they have been with Roy [Williams]. When you think of Carolina basketball, you think of the fast break and you also think of the offensive rebound.”
It’s going to require a team effort to counter that. Duke certainly will need more on the boards from Hurt, who had a season-low three rebounds against Miami.
“I think they have four big guys that are really talented, really strong, really physical. Going into the game, we’ve just got to be mentally prepared for the physicality. . . . I have to be a lot better on the boards. Three rebounds in a lot of minutes is not going to cut it. For me trying to find a body, to be physical and going up to get the rebound with two hands . . . and also trying to read where the shot is going to go and find the right angle . . . to be smartest guy on the court.”
But Duke also is going to get rebounds from its perimeter. D.J. Steward is 6-2, 165 pounds but has demonstrated a nose for the ball. He had nine rebounds against Coppin State, eight against Boston College.
Rebounding is “going to be crucial for us. It’s got to be an all-together game,” Steward said, ” where we’re together and working as one unit. We worked on that in practice yesterday, just defensive rebounding, hitting our man, making sure we get our elbow into their chest, just being aggressive with them, letting them know we aren’t to be punked.”
Even with that rebounding dominance Carolina has had some games where they’ve had trouble putting points on the board, including a woeful 50 against Clemson earlier this week. Can Duke freshmen guards Steward and Jeremy Roach help control UNC’s equally young guards, especially R.J. Davis and Caleb Love?
Freshman or not, Steward says he and Love have seen enough of each other over the ACC circuit that there shouldn’t be any surprises.
“I played against them a couple times, especially Caleb Love. I’m pretty close with him. I talk to him a good amount, so it’s going to be a fun matchup. I played against him in high school and I just can’t wait. They’re two really good guys in the back court.”
None of this is going to matter if Duke doesn’t bring more toughness, energy and focus than we saw Monday night.
Steward says it starts with brutal honesty, no time for bruised egos.
“It was something that was really hard to watch, but watching film together or even on our own, it helps us. The truth comes out in the film whenever we watch it, so we’re just going to move forward. We saw what we have to do better and we’re just going to move forward and build on that. In practice, I feel like we’ve been a lot more critiquing things and being more on each other.”
“When a head coach says something like that, it’s got to start in practice, hitting the pads, hitting each other harder, talking more. Just hearing that just motivates us to be better. He knows what he’s talking about and we’d better listen.”
Krzyzewski recognizes that his young team is still a work-in-progress and the clock is ticking. But he has been encouraged by the response he’s seen in practice.
“With our team – wins and losses – we’ve got to continue to learn about one another, about why you win, why you lose. You have to look at every experience and let them know. I didn’t realize until this week – someone told me we’re the fifth-youngest team in the NCAA. That’s not an excuse. What it is, is you have to coach that team differently. How I coached some other teams might not work with this team. How do I keep getting a consistently positive, productive message to my group? It’s different. That doesn’t mean they’re bad or anything – it’s just different.
“Because I’ve been doing it so long, you go into work, you usually turn left at this light and maybe you should turn right, or just always pay attention to the light, I should say. That’s what we’re going through. There’s not one answer to that. We’re kind of continuing to work at it.”