It’s finally here. On Thursday night, No. 8 North Carolina Basketball travels to Durham to take on No. 18 Duke in what is widely acclaimed as the best rivalry in college sports (sorry, Michigan and Ohio State). North Carolina enters the game atop the ACC standings at 9-2, while Duke is lurking two and a half games behind at 6-4. The Blue Devils are coming off a 72-64 win over Pitt—more significantly, it was Coach K’s first game back after being out for a month with back surgery. The Tar Heels are coming off an 83-76 win over Notre Dame and have won nine of their last 10 games. With both teams playing well right now, this will undoubtedly be yet another classic in a rivalry that has already had many.
Duke is an extremely talented team that has underperformed for the majority of this season. They entered the season as preseason No. 1 and were in danger of becoming unranked after losing three of four a couple weeks ago. The Blue Devils are led by Luke Kennard, who’s averaging nearly 20 points per game on 53 percent shooting (45.8 percent from 3). The scoring doesn’t stop with Kennard, as Grayson Allen (15.8), Jayson Tatum (15.8), Amile Jefferson (12.0), and Frank Jackson (10.2) are all averaging double figures in scoring. UNC will need to pick its poison when defending the Blue Devils, as it will be nearly impossible to shut all of them down. Most importantly, North Carolina will need to limit Duke’s looks from three-point range. Kennard, Allen, Jackson, Jones, and Tatum are all more than capable of knocking down open threes. UNC has yet to prove that it can defend the three consistently this season, so Duke’s success from long range will be something to watch. The Tar Heels have gotten away with shoddy three-point defense against lesser teams, but they will leave Cameron Indoor with an L if they allow Duke to get hot from deep. If Theo Pinson plays for North Carolina, he could help the Tar Heels tremendously on defense–his status is still up in the air.
That being said, perimeter play is undoubtedly Duke’s strength—they will need to offset the disadvantage they will have down low. The Blue Devils only have one experienced post player in Amile Jefferson (12 PPG, 9.2 RPG). Freshman Harry Giles (5.3 PPG, 4.6 RPG) is undeniably talented, but he’s had issues returning from injury and is still adjusting to the college game. Expect UNC to give the ball to Kennedy Meeks (12.6 PPG, 9.4 RPG), Isaiah Hicks (12.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG), Tony Bradley Jr. (7.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG), and Luke Maye (4.9 PPG, 3.7 RPG) to overwhelm Duke’s bigs and get them in foul trouble. UNC leads the country in rebounding—they will look to crash the glass for second chance opportunities and limit Duke to one shot on the defensive end. If UNC’s post players are having success, they’ll be able to collapse the defense and leave playmakers like Joel Berry II and Justin Jackson wide open on the perimeter. The Tar Heels must exploit the significant advantage they will have in the post—If UNC can outrebound and outscore Duke in the paint, they will have a great chance of returning to Chapel Hill with a victory.
This game will come down to UNC’s post play against Duke’s perimeter play. If UNC wins, we’ll likely be talking about how the likes of Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, and Tony Bradley Jr. dominated down low. If Duke wins, we’ll be talking about how Luke Kennard and Grayson Allen took the game over by hitting shot after shot. Overall, I expect this game to be very close and I wouldn’t be shocked to see it go into overtime.