Duke may be the No. 2 ranked team in the country and an 11-point favorite, but that never changes the hype entering a matchup with Tobacco Road rival North Carolina.
Read: Get everything you need for tonight’s Duke-North Carolina basketball game.
Here are the three keys to tonight’s Duke-UNC action:
How fast will it get?
North Carolina plays at one of the fastest paces in the country, hurrying the ball up the court and always looking to score in transition. The Tar Heels average 78.3 points per game, ninth in Div. I, and 18.0 assists per game, second in Div. I. Duke has the athleticism to run with any team, but sometimes it’s difficult to run the floor for an entire game and always remember to get back quickly on defense, something that plagued the Blue Devils in their road loss to N.C. State. And it’s not just the guards either—UNC forward James Michael McAdoo is athletic as they come and is the beneficiary of Dexter Strickland and Marcus Paige’s up-tempo style of play. Mason Plumlee and Amile Jefferson are as naturally athletic as any forwards out there, but one of them always has to have a hand on McAdoo making sure he can’t get any easy buckets in transition. Offensive rebounders sometimes seem like a priority, but the more Duke crashes the boards tonight, the more room the Tar Heels have to work in transition when the collect defensive boards. It will be a delicate balance.
Duke PG Quinn Cook is just as good at pushing the pace as the UNC guards, but the bigger task for him will be getting in the passing lanes and trying to prevent Paige and Strickland from getting the ball up the court too quickly. He should be looking to harass them in the backcourt and prevent them from breaking the median too quickly—the North Carolina offense is talented but less functional in halfcourt sets.
Can Mason play tough D and avoid foul trouble?
Plumlee has all the tools to be a top-notch defender, but as Duke’s frontcourt has thinned due to the injury of Ryan Kelly, Plumlee has backed off opposing players at times, resulting in easy buckets. This is something Plumlee has talked openly about: Needing to use his fouls more wisely and play good defense even when he can’t risk picking up another foul. McAdoo is UNC’s top scorer and will look to attack Plumlee and Jefferson all night, and it could be dangerous if Plumlee is too lax. Plumlee has renentered the conversation for National Player of the Year with two 30-point efforts in his last four games, but he could do a lot for both his case and the Blue Devils’ chances at victory if he turns in a lockdown defensive performance against one of the nation’s premier big men. He did just that against Alex Len of Maryland, but McAdoo is a different animal with the ability to knock down jump shots and play a little farther from the hoop.
The size differential on the perimeter
Averaging 5.6 rebounds per game, Reggie Bullock is as good of a wing rebounder as there is in college basketball. And given that none of Duke’s perimeter starters stand taller than 6-foot-4, he could be in for a field day, using his size to bully players around. The onus of guarding Bullock will likely fall on freshman Rasheed Sulaimon, who has the athleticism and length to guard most guys, but is still only a first-year and has room to develop. It will be interesting to see how Duke basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski deals with that matchup. Last year against UNC, Coach K placed defensive specialist Tyler Thornton on the much taller Harrison Barnes, a strategy that was only marginally effective at best. Will Thornton get more time to try and frustrate Bullock? Will 6-foot-8 wingman Alex Murphy see more time at the three to try and match up with Bullock? That will be interesting to see as things heat up at Cameron Indoor Stadium.