Even the best college basketball teams have weaknesses, and Duke is no exception to this rule. The North Carolina Tar Heels will have to exploit these weaknesses to break even in the series on Saturday night.
This is not the same team UNC faced in Cameron Indoor a few weeks ago. Ryan Kelly was back in the lineup against Miami, and his 36 points is a pretty good indication of his health.
He's feeling just fine.
The Hurricanes did a great job of exploiting some of these weaknesses, but they made the mistake of getting away from what was working. And with Kelly in the game, the Tar Heels simply cannot afford to do that.
In some cases, exploiting these weaknesses will take Carolina players out of their comfort zones. But in the words of the great Herm Edwards, "You play to win the game." Sometimes that means doing whatever it takes.
"Whatever it takes" should be the Tar Heels' theme this weekend.
The following is a list of Duke's five greatest weaknesses and how the Tar Heels can take full advantage. I will go into further detail when I break down the five keys to the game for Carolina on Thursday.
Of the five weaknesses we will be covering, defending drivers and cutters may be the Blue Devils' biggest. It was shameful to watch how easily the Miami players were getting by Duke's perimeter defenders.
It didn't matter whether it was a cutter sneaking through the lane or a driver taking a Duke guard off the dribble. It was straight money every time.
Then they started shooting threes, for whatever reason. That's just a bad idea.
Miami finished 6-of-21 from downtown and lost by three points.
Duke ranks 14th in the nation, holding opponents to 29.5 percent shooting behind the arc. On two-point attempts, opponents are shooting 46.2 percent.
The last time these teams met, UNC was 5-of-18 from three. It lost by five points.
The Tar Heels love shooting those threes this season—and they're pretty darn good at it—but they will be much better off if they put their focus on getting to the rim.
That duty will weigh heavily on Marcus Paige, Dexter Strickland and P.J. Hairston, who are the team's three best players off the dribble. Meanwhile, James Michael McAdoo and Reggie Bullock should be cutting to the basket every chance they get.
Why play to Duke's strengths?
Not much taller than their 6'1" point guard.
With Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly in the lineup, Duke definitely has the edge down low. However, it's a completely different story with its wings.
Seth Curry and Rasheed Sulaimon are 6'2" and 6'4", respectively. Strickland is UNC's smallest wing at 6'3". Everyone else is 6'5" and above.
In the last game between these two, we saw Carolina guards posting up the smaller Blue Devils a few times with great success. They didn't do it enough, though, and that's something Carolina should try to take advantage of.
I wouldn't advise Dexter Strickland to go posting anyone up, but Leslie McDonald and P.J. Hairston have been pretty solid the few times we have seen them work with their backs to the basket.
Normally, Hairston would be playing the 4, but Roy could slide the longer Bullock to the 4 to battle with 6'11" Kelly. Bullock hasn't proven to be very effective posting up, and having Hairston at the 3 could create a bigger mismatch with Duke's wings in both height and strength.
Even Duke fans will tell you this team lives and dies by the three. Obviously, the Blue Devils have been winning more than dying, but that doesn't negate the fact they rely heavily on the three ball. As a matter of fact, 32.9 percent of their attempts come from behind the arc.
In its 26 wins, Duke was able to bury 44.4 percent of its three-point attempts. In the four losses, the team shot 27.6 percent.
And in the two games since Kelly's return, that number has jumped to 42.6 percent.
The Blue Devils are also shooting 50 percent from three over that span, so you can't really blame them.
But the fact remains that Duke relies on the three, and putting a stop to that should be the greatest focus of UNC's defense. It did an excellent job in the first half in Cameron, holding the Blue Devils to just 1-of-4 shooting from downtown.
Then Duke went 5-of-12 in the second half.
Coach K's team is absolutely relentless with its screens. The Tar Heels will have to fight through them and avoid taking shortcuts for a full 40 minutes.
A strong start by Carolina could also help to shake the confidence of these marksmen.
Aside from Mason Plumlee—who averages 10.2 rebounds per game—the Blue Devils have struggled to clean up the glass this season. The team ranks 191st in the nation with 34.3 rebounds per game.
The way they spread the floor prevents them from crashing the boards. Carolina is finding this out, too.
Before shifting to the smaller lineup, the Tar Heels ranked near the top with 40.8 rebounds per game. Since then, they are only snatching up 32.8 per game.
There is no longer a clear advantage for North Carolina anymore, and doing a better job of boxing out will be key to winning the rebounding battle. Hairston and Bullock have great instincts for getting to rebounds, but they aren't exactly used to boxing out—and that shows.
Duke won the last battle on the boards, 39-38.
I expect another close one on Saturday with the way these teams match up.
And if rebounding is an area Roy Williams wants to win, it may be smart to find more than four minutes for Brice Johnson. That's how long the Tar Heels' most efficient rebounder was in the last game.
What would also help is McAdoo pushing Plumlee off the block.
Just about every game this season for North Carolina has been a talw of two halves. They have a tendency to get away from what was working from one-half to another.
We already talked about Duke splashing its second-half threes, and some of that had to do with Plumlee's effectiveness.
McAdoo did an excellent job of working Plumlee in the first half, constantly keeping him five to 10 feet off the block. In the second half, he stopped being as physical. Instead, he chose to flop more than the San Antonio Spurs.
With no whistle and McAdoo on the floor, it's an easy two for the senior center.
When he was no longer able to take Plumlee one-on-one, teammates started helping. That left the shooters wide open to bury some treys.
And this was without Kelly in the lineup.
McAdoo absolutely has to be able to take Plumlee one-on-one or it's going to be a long day at the shooting range. On the inside, Plumlee has the advantage of size and strength. On the outside, McAdoo has the advantage of speed and a less comfortable Plumlee.
McAdoo has to throw finesse out the window and bully Plumlee off the block. Period.
While North Carolina needs to play to its own strengths, it can't lose sight of Duke's deficiencies. Coach Williams must work his game plan around these areas of weakness to split the season series.