After a demoralizing loss to Miami Sunday, the Blue Devils are no doubt eager to attack their opponents with renewed energy. Unfortunately, their redemption must wait at least one more game, because North Carolina—the most talented team in the ACC—will hand Duke another loss in Chapel Hill Wednesday.
Why? Let’s begin with a recap of last year’s series. The Tar Heels dropped two out of the rivals’ three meetings last season, but North Carolina notched a convincing 81-67 victory in the Dean E. Smith Center to capture the regular season conference championship. Despite 30 points from then-senior Nolan Smith, the Tar Heels jumped out to a 14-point lead in the first half and never looked back.
Although it would be unwise to draw too many conclusions from a single game, almost all of the players who squared off in that matchup last March will be back on the floor Wednesday night, except for a trio of Blue Devil stars. The North Carolina offense also remains as potent as it was last season, with the Tar Heels leading the nation in scoring at just over 84 points per game. Duke can score in bunches, but turning the game into a shootout would play right into North Carolina’s hands. The defensive effort put forth by the Blue Devils will ultimately determine whether they come away with the win, especially if they shoot poorly from the outside.
Yet I have a hard time believing Duke will succeed in shutting down all of Roy Williams’ weapons, especially considering the Blue Devils’ recent struggles on the defensive end. The NBA-ready trio of Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller comprises one of the best frontcourts in the college game, while point guard Kendall Marshall ranks second in Division I in assists per contest. And even without the injured Dexter Strickland, the Tar Heels’ supporting cast features three players—Reggie Bullock, P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo—capable of scoring in double figures on any given night.
After playing inspired defense against Virginia Tech Thursday, Duke experienced a letdown during the Miami game Sunday. Kenny Kadji and Reggie Johnson—similar in height but less skilled than Henson and Zeller—combined for 42 points in the Hurricanes’ first-ever win at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Given the success Johnson enjoyed down low, North Carolina’s twin towers should receive plenty of good looks at the basket. Granted, neither Zeller nor Henson carries the girth of the 285-pound Johnson, but they don’t need to outmuscle their defenders in order to score. Both players boast an arsenal of post moves and can knock down jumpers from 10-12 feet.
Unless the Blue Devils can consistently play the type of lockdown perimeter defense they displayed in the second half of Sunday’s defeat, Marshall will find a way to get his big men involved. He may not possess enough quickness to drive by Duke’s guards, but his court vision is so highly developed that he can put the ball in the hands of Henson and Zeller without penetrating deep into the lane. The distributor also excels in transition and can pick defenses apart with his outlet pass.
The Blue Devils could fluster the Tar Heels by exploiting Marshall’s occasional carelessness with the ball—almost 30 percent of his possessions this season have resulted in turnovers. But Duke usually doesn’t create many takeaways as a result of its defensive strategy. The Blue Devils’ opponents this season have coughed up the ball about once every five possessions, a mark slightly below the Division I average.
Finally, Duke will need to find a way to contain Barnes—North Carolina’s leading scorer. The 6-foot-8 forward poses a serious matchup problem on the wing, and the Blue Devils are fortunate that he’s still dealing with an ankle injury sustained last week. Nevertheless, Barnes mustered 18 points against Maryland Saturday and hit a late jumper that sealed the Tar Heels’ victory.
When Duke takes the floor at the Dean Dome, Mike Krzyzewski will make sure his team understands the level of intensity needed to earn a victory in the Tobacco Road rivalry. But if Blue Devils haven’t shown the ability to sustain that focus and unity of purpose in tough games at home, doing so in front of 21,750 hostile fans seems unlikely.