The North Carolina-Duke rivalry gets ready to write another chapter, as the Tar Heels look not only for revenge against the arch-rival Blue Devils, but also take home the ACC regular season crown. The prior matchup in Chapel Hill was an instant classic, thanks to the late game heroics—or villainy depending on your allegiance—of Austin Rivers.
The question now is, what must the Tar Heels do to secure a second straight ACC regular season championship?
There are some very important things that the Tar Heels should do if they want to take the bus ride back to Chapel Hill in celebration. It should not be in dispute that they need to handle at least a majority of these items if they want to come away victorious.
Simply put, the Duke Blue Devils do not stack up against North Carolina in the paint. The Plumlees have to both play some of the best basketball of their careers to match typical production from Tyler Zeller and John Henson. This advantage must be the prime focus for Roy Williams.
In the previous matchup on February 8, Tyler Zeller was the undisputed star of the first half, as he led all players with 19 points at the break. John Henson added 10 big points. Those 29 points accounted for two-thirds of the Tar Heels' 43 at the half.
Harrison Barnes also chipped in six points at the half before taking over in the second half as Zeller cooled off. Unfortunately, Barnes ended up being the goat at the expense of the Austin Rivers buzzer beater.
Compare that production to the first half production of the bigs for Duke. Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly combined for only nine points. They were unable to keep Henson and Zeller from racking up rebounds on both ends of the floor.
Just like in the previous game, the Tar Heels need to pound the ball inside early and often. There is nothing more important in this game than making sure that Henson and Zeller are asserting themselves offensively and defensively against the overmatched competition.
Simply put, frontcourt play is UNC's biggest asset and Duke's biggest liability. Exploiting that discrepancy is key for North Carolina.
Harrison Barnes has the ability to make things look effortless, and never looks rattled. It's gone to the point where fans have begun to associate him with a cold and calculating robot warrior who can turn on the scoring like pressing the power button on your Xbox.
The phenomenon that is BarnesBot was put on display in the second half against Duke in February, as he turned on the scoring after going 0-for-4 before the break. It was Harrison Barnes who carried the Tar Heels in the second half, trading big shots back and forth with Duke stud freshman Austin Rivers.
On Saturday, Barnes needs to come out with a full battery and activated for a full game of high-level production. There cannot be a repeat of the previous meeting, where Barnes lets Rivers get off to a hot start and lets his confidence build.
UNC needs their Terminator on both ends of the floor for both halves.
P.J. Hairston Keeping the Blue Devils Honest
It's well-known by now that PJ Hairston is in a shooting slump of epic proportions. By now, UNC fans are aware that the once dead-eye shooter from downtown is now 8-for-49 from the three-point line during ACC play.
I'm not going to simply say that Hairston needs to break out of his slump. The fact is he doesn't. He was 0-for-3 from the field and 0-for-2 from beyond the arc against Duke in Chapel Hill. He was not the reason the Tar Heels lost that game.
All P.J. Hairston needs to do is remain a credible threat from outside. If the ball comes to him and he's got an open shot, he needs to take it. If he starts passing up those open looks, the Blue Devils will immediately catch on that his confidence is not there and play off him, piling bodies in the paint to neutralize the Carolina frontcourt.
Hairston's insistence on finding his shot will go a long way in ensuring that Zeller, Henson and Barnes are all able to exploit their own matchups.
Going Under a Screen Should Be a Benching Offense
Ask anyone wearing a UNC shirt what the most glaring weakness of this year's squad is, and almost every single time they will reply with something like, "UNC can't guard the three-point shot."
And they would be right.
The Tar Heels' inability to challenge shots beyond the arc has been an Achilles [Tar] Heel this year the way careless turnovers were the bane of North Carolina's in the previous who knows how many.
The primary reason the Tar Heels have been so bad at guarding the arc lies squarely in their seeming refusal to fight over the top of ball screens. By going under the screens they are allowing the opposing offenses to take wide open shots.
Carolina should consider themselves lucky that Duke only shot 14-for-36 from behind the line in the last game. Had the streaky Andre Dawkins been on his game alongside Rivers and Seth Curry, the Blue Devils would have hung 100 on the Tar Heels.
The only person on the floor who should get a pass on going under on a ball screen is Kendall Marshall. Fighting through the screen leaves him more susceptible to picking up personal fouls and time on the bench that the Heels simply can't afford.
Bullock and Barnes need to make sure they do not let the likes of Rivers, Curry and Dawkins get open looks from behind the three-point line.
Roy Williams Can't Be Afraid to Adjust at the Half
It is no secret that I am a life-long North Carolina fan. But even the most die-hard Tar Heels fanatics should be able to realize that one thing Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski is fantastic at is making adjustments at halftime.
This is evident in games against North Carolina, where the Tar Heels dominate the first half and appear ready to run the Blue Devils out of the building.
In almost every case, Coach K manages to identify the problems and fix them and the Blue Devils come storming back.
Very rarely does that same scenario happen when it comes to the Tar Heels when they go to the locker room.
I don't know how many people would agree, but it is something that I have noticed and commented on in prior iterations of this rivalry game. I believe that this ability to adjust at the half is the single most important key to the game. In these games, the only constants are the coaches.
The talent comes and goes from year to year, but Coach K always has me the most worried because of this advantage.
Roy Williams needs to make sure that he approaches the half ready to adjust if necessary. Sticking with a player for too long turns loyalty into stubbornness. If something isn't working, Williams needs to fix it instead of hoping it corrects itself over the course of the second half.
Despite Duke's rankings and home-court advantage, I sincerely believe that the Tar Heels are the better team and should be considered the favorites to win. While that may be a small part of my Carolina blue showing through, I think most of it is simply based on objective analysis.
On paper, the Heels are simply the better team, and Duke's home-court advantage this year has been nullified greatly thanks to the performances of Florida State and Miami. Games are not won on paper, however, and it will take Carolina following at least some of these items if they want to end Duke's regular season with a loss.