ACC Basketball

Blue Devils Travel Down Tobacco Road

Mark Dolejs/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

HOW WE GOT HERE
The Duke Blue Devils have cruised to 10-straight victories and have taken command of second place in the ACC and should have little fear heading into Chapel Hill, as they’ve already won at Virginia, Louisville and Wisconsin this season and have four of their last six at North Carolina.

The Tar Heels have won two in a row and seem to have gotten past a rough patch that saw them drop five of seven, yet this is a team that hasn’t beaten a top-50 team since beating NC State in their first meeting back on January 14.

PREVIOUS MEETING:
Yeah, it was a classic. The Blue Devils were up early, but late in the first half, North Carolina took over in the paint and on the glass, while Duke fumbled away the lead. Midway through the second half, the Tar Heels opened up a double digit lead, but behind Tyus Jones, the Blue Devils scored on 12 of their final 14 possessions to force overtime, where they eventually pulled out a 92-90 victory.

DEEP THOUGHTS
Let’s face it, North Carolina had Duke beat in Durham. They should have won. During one long stretch they had outscored the Blue Devils 41-18. Yet, when the game was on the line, they couldn’t make free throws, they couldn’t hold onto the ball and they couldn’t keep Tyus Jones out of the lane.

Yet, we can’t forget how successful the Tar Heels were offensively inside. Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks were a combined 16-20 from the floor. As a team they grabbed 19 offensive rebounds, 18 of them coming during one 24-minute stretch.

There is no reason they won’t do it again. Granted, Coach K has done a great job of mixing things up with his game plans this season. He knows what the team needs to do to win. However, with Justise Winslow now starting at the 4-spot, this is a small Duke team on the floor. Carolina should once again own the offensive glass.

When they run their offense, Roy Williams needs to make sure everything runs through one of their big guys. We all know Jahlil Okafor’s defensive limitations, so they should attack him with their backs to the basket and force him to make a stop. Duke will have little choice but to double team, leaving others open.

The Tar Heels also need to let the beast loose. I’m talking about Marcus Paige. Quinn Cook was all over him in Durham and delivered next to nothing. Cook will be on Paige again (he won’t be leaving for double teams), so Paige needs to run and out of screens, double screens, backdoor screens. Cook never sits, so make him run, make him sweat, make him gassed by the end of the game.

On the flip side, Duke will look to push the action. They’ve shown little fear attacking off both missed shots and made shots. Look for both Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow to deliver a ton of dribble drive. The fact is, the Tar heels foul a lot and their bigs could have a hard time with Winslow.

While the Blue Devils’ three-point shooting has been on lately, I expect Okafor to get a lot of touches inside, especially when the shorter Meeks is guarding him. The Duke big man is coming off his worst offensive performance (just two attempts from the floor) and he looks ready to explode for a 20-point, 10 rebound game.

However, the X-factor in this game has little to do with strategy and more to do with health. Right now, the Blue Devils have five players with left ankle injuries, which means only three players are labeled as healthy. Bad ankles are not the kind of injury to have when playing an athletic above-the-rim team like North Carolina.

Also, what does Duke have to play for? Yes, they’re fighting for a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament, but if they win the ACC tournament, they’ll get that. The fact is, they’ve wrapped up the 2-seed in the conference tournament, so they don’t have much to play for.

Of course I’m not sure North Carolina has anything to play for either. According to this, if Louisville beats Virginia earlier in the day, they get the 4-spot no matter what UNC does. However, if the Cardinals lose, the Tar Heels gets the 4-spot whether they win or lose. Math is hard.

For my money, Carolina plays for pride.

WORTHLESS PREDICTION: North Carolina, 86-79

NOTE: Word is, Roy Williams has said they are going to recognize Coach K’s 1,000 victory. How sweet. I don’t know about you, but this rivalry sure could use a fist fight or something.

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