ACC Basketball

North Carolina vs Duke…Let’s Do This!

(Dennis Nett | dnett@syracuse.com)

Sure it may seem like the ACC conference belongs to Virginia right now, but I’m sure we can find a little time to watch the second-place Duke Blue Devils host the fifth-place North Carolina Tar Heels.

Heading into the 239th meeting between the two neighbors on Tobacco Road, the Blue Devils are hot in the series, taking eight of the last 11 dating back to 2010 and they are the hotter team right now. Led by a trio of freshmen, Duke has won five straight, including victories over both Virginia and Notre Dame and are coming off an impressive rally over Syracuse.

North Carolina enters the contest ice cold. They’ve dropped three of four, coming off a defeat to Pittsburgh where they allowed the Panthers to hit 69% of their shots, so this is probably not the perfect time for a trip to Cameron for Roy Williams’ club. At least it’s a short journey.

Inside, the Blue Devils have the best interior player in Jahlil Okafor, averaging 18 points and nine boards per game. While he’s had stretches where he’s struggled against the double team, the coaching staff has done a great job adjusting and feeding the big man. He’s coming off a 10-15 performance against Syracuse and he’s made 24 of his last 31 shots.

The Tar Heels will counter with depth. Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and even Justin Jackson can score inside and defend the paint and they need to attack Okafor and force the big man to defend. He’s certainly improved lately with his footwork, but with so much depth, Roy Williams can afford to get aggressive and dare the refs to blow the whistle. Worst case, Okafor goes to the line and that’s not a bad option.

The problem for Carolina is outside of the paint. Duke’s trio of Quinn Cook, Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and even Matt Jones are far superior than Marcus Paige, J.P. Tokoto, Nate Britt and Joel Berry. Hell, I’d take Duke’s Greyson Allen over both Britt and Berry. If I’m coaching the Tar Heels, I try to take advantage of my mismatches. Tokoto will tower over both Cook and Jones, so why not get him some touches inside?

Can North Carolina pull this one out? Sure. Neither of these teams are intimidated by the other’s home court. They certainly have the meat inside to cause Duke problems and I actually expect Brice Johnson to have a great game being guarded by Amile Jefferson and/or Winslow all night. Also, don’t forget about the pressure the Blue Devils will face. Their three freshmen are most likely one-and-done players, so this will be their ONLY game against a heated rival in Cameron. The pressure to perform will weigh heavily on their shoulders.

Yet, I just can’t see what the Tar Heels can do defensively. They don’t force turnovers, they struggle a bit stopping the three and they are even worse at closing out lanes for penetration. Look for the Blue Devils to run, pushing the ball off Carolina misses. If Okafor struggles inside or gets into foul trouble, Coach K has already proven he’s not afraid to flash some zone, especially against teams like the Tar Heels, who are struggling to hit from deep.

WORTHLESS PREDICTION: Duke, 81-72

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