The greatest of all time against his greatest rival, his last road trip to the site of some of his greatest wins and some of his worst losses.
We all know the sidebars and if you want to read about the big picture, you’ve got options galore.
I’m going to try to put that aside and look at what shapes up as a pretty important game. Yes, yes, all Duke-Carolina games are important. But most of them also have significant implications on the ACC and national picture and this one certainly does. With Miami’s loss to Notre Dame Wednesday night Duke sits atop the ACC at 8-2, with Miami, Notre Dame and North Carolina sitting on three losses. A Duke win hardly wraps up the regular season; way too much left for that. But road wins over Notre Dame and UNC in the same week would certainly put Duke in a good position going into the stretch run.
But a UNC win and we’re looking at a more interesting February than the Duke-and-everybody-else scenario being sketched a few weeks ago suggested we would be facing.
Both teams are feeling pretty good about their games right now. The Tar Heels have had their share of wobbles early on but they are undefeated at home, riding a four-game winning streak and coming off a contentious overtime win at Louisville.
But Duke is also in a good place. Mike Krzyzewski, Mark Williams and Joey Baker Zoomed with the media Thursday afternoon to discuss the big game.
“I think we’re in better condition,” Krzyzewski said. “The last couple of games we’ve rebounded defensively, which we lost sight of for a few games. We haven’t put people on the line as much, given open looks and free throws, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of that.”
Speaking of defense, since that overtime loss at Florida State Duke has allowed 59 points to Syracuse, 69 to Clemson, 65 to Louisville and 43 to Notre Dame, all Duke wins.
The defensive performance against Notre Dame was something you put in a time capsule. Good teams simply do not score 43 points at home.
But North Carolina has some significant philosophical and schematic differences from Notre Dame. The Tar Heels go much deeper into their bench, crash the offensive boards and try to get into fast breaks any time they can.
Can Duke translate that defensive success against Notre Dame into comparable success against UNC?
Williams says yes.
“It’s going to come down to communication. At Notre Dame we did a really good job talking, especially on ball screens, knowing our coverages, knowing personnel. Just having the same mindset, locking in on every possession.”
Baker sums up the things that are making Duke’s defense so effective.
“I think we’re all just buying in. Our preparation has been at a really high level over the last few games. We understand that this stretch for us we have a lot of road games and we have to be able to fall back on our defense and get stops.”
Williams may have the biggest defensive assignment for Duke. Armando Bacot is a below-the rim presence at 6-10, 250 pounds. But he’s an experienced junior, almost impossible to move off the blocks and relentless on the glass. He’s averaging 16.5 points and 12.5 rebounds per game, while hitting 57 percent from the field. He’s had recent games of 19 points and 22 rebounds against Louisville, 18 points and 13 rebounds against NC State, 29 points and 12 rebounds against NC State and 29 points and 22 rebounds against Virginia.
“Hopefully, he won’t dominate the game,” Krzyzewski said of Bacot. “He’s one of the best players in the country, a candidate for player of the year in our conference. He’s put up great numbers many games in a row. Constant vigilance in trying to block him out and hopefully we can limit some of those numbers. But you’re not going to stop a guy like that.”
Mark Williams hasn’t seen many people like Bacot. Then again, Bacot hasn’t gone up against many defenders like Williams.
What does Williams think of going against Bacot?
“I’m really excited for the match-up. Obviously, he’s a good player. He rebounds the ball really well. He just had 19 and 22 against Louisville. I’m up for the challenge. I can’t wait.”
Keeping Carolina off their offensive boards is important. But the Tar Heels weaponize defensive rebounds as well as anyone, constantly looking to get into fast breaks and convert off defensive rebounds.
Baker says controlling that has been a point of emphasis in the game prep.
“That’s one the areas that they shine the brightest. They have quick, fast guards. They get the rebound and they push the pace. They look to score early. Being able to contain them and make them a half-court team will be huge for us.”
How to do that?
Communication is a key, knowing who’s attacking the boards, who’s hanging back “making sure they don’t get open runs and make easy layups. We want to make them earn everything.”
Krzyzewski says nerves aren’t even on the radar.
“Our guys want to play this game. They may be antsy to do well. But nervous is not going to be part of it. These kids want to play in games like this,”
Williams knows what to expect. “A hostile environment, ready to fight, a tough game, a physical game” with all of the sidebars left behind.
“At the end of the day it’s just we’re playing basketball.”