Saturday’s matchup between the No. 4 Duke Blue Devils and North Carolina Tar Heels will not ultimately decide who wins the ACC championship as many expected, but it will decide who the conference’s hottest team is heading into tournament season.
Looking to lock up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, the Blue Devils have recovered nicely from a frustrating loss to Virginia on Feb. 28. Spurred in part by the return of forward Ryan Kelly, Duke has ripped off two straight wins heading into its conference finale, including a critical home triumph over Miami last Saturday.
On the other bench, Roy Williams leads a Tar Heels team that’s finally living up to its lofty preseason billing. The youth-laden squad, which came into the season ranked No. 11, has spent much of its year outside the Top 25 after a rough start. But with six straight wins prior to Saturday’s contest, the Heels’ confidence has to be much higher than it was the last time these two met.
Playing before a packed house in Durham, Duke pulled away for a 73-68 win on Feb. 13. Mason Plumlee led the way for the Blue Devils with 18 points and 11 rebounds, with Quinn Cook chipping in another 18.
How will this matchup play out? Here is a complete breakdown of Saturday night’s clash of ACC titans.
When: Saturday, March 9, 9 p.m. ET
Where: Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, N.C.
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Records: Duke (26-4, 13-4 ACC) vs. North Carolina (22-8, 12-5 ACC)
Keys to the Matchup
Run the Offense Through Ryan Kelly
In just two games back for Kelly, the senior forward may have cemented his place as Duke’s most important player.
Returning last Saturday versus Miami, Kelly infamously set a career high with 36 points and led the way for a critical Blue Devils victory. His follow-up performance was only slightly less impressive—18 points, nine rebounds, five assists on 6-of-12 shooting—as Duke pummeled an overmatched Virginia Tech squad.
Those two games continued a trend that started before Kelly’s injury: The Blue Devils do not lose with Kelly in the lineup. They are now 17-0 with the 6'11" stretch forward on the floor as opposed to a 9-4 record without him. Prorated over an entire season, the Blue Devils are a 21-10 without Kelly and, well, 31-0 when he plays.
The reason for that is two-fold. First, Duke is arguably the thinnest top-ranked team in the nation. Coach Krzyzewski prefers to stick to his six-man rotation as much as possible, with Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston only coming in whenever needed. Without Kelly, Krzyzewski had to rely on the two more than he preferred and they have gone back to playing minimally the past two games.
The other factor is (obviously) Kelly’s prowess on the offensive end. He spaces the floor brilliantly, is one of Duke’s most consistent long-range shooters and makes smart plays with the ball in his hands. That takes a ton of pressure off Seth Curry and Plumlee, who had to shoulder way too much offensive responsibility during conference play.
With North Carolina bringing out its four-guard lineup on Saturday, an inside out attack is the best way to manhandle the Tar Heels’ ball handlers. Kelly is Duke’s best and most versatile offensive option and he’ll likely be guarded by a player nearly a half-foot shorter than he is—assuming Williams puts James Michael McAdoo on Plumlee. If that’s the case, Kelly should be the first option on just about every single possession.
Never Stop Running—On Either End of the Floor
It’s no secret that the Tar Heels play among the nation’s fastest paces. That’s been the case nearly every season since Williams took over as head coach, and has been critical in 2012-13 with a mostly undersized roster.
Heading into Saturday’s contest, the Tar Heels have an adjusted tempo of 71.7 possessions per game, nearly six higher than the average, per Ken Pomeroy. That ranks seventh in the nation, a higher mark than every “major conference” team other than DePaul.
What been most impressive is how effective North Carolina is in that up-and-down pace. Pomeroy rates them as the 31st most efficient offense in college hoops, which is solid for a team that’s hitting the hardwood on every possession. They pass the ball intelligently out of pick-and-roll sets and avoid turnovers well for the most part—a critical factor for a high-tempo side.
For contrast, Duke rates fifth in offensive efficiency. Even when Kelly was absent, Krzyzewski sent out a veteran group of players who did not give the ball away, ranking fourth in turnover percentage, and took smart, effective shots. Duke swings the ball on offense and is almost always running out of set plays, though Coach K still gives his team freedom far more than most collegiate coaches at this point.
The Blue Devils run at an above-average pace, per Pomeroy, but not by much. This isn’t a team filled with athletes and it likes to keep things mostly structured. The more the game slows down, the more it favors Duke’s utterly brilliant half-court offense—especially since Kelly’s return.
In turn, North Carolina simply cannot let the pace slow down whatsoever. If Williams doesn’t throw together a few surprise full-court presses to create turnovers, he’s doing his team a disservice. The Tar Heels need to force Coach K’s hand, getting other than Quinn Cook to bring the ball up the floor and avoiding the size mismatch as much as possible.
Most importantly, the jump shots have to fall. North Carolina could not control the pace in the first matchup because the team shot only 37.9 percent from the field. If that’s the case again on Saturday, they won’t just lose—they’ll get destroyed.
It’s become an in-vogue talking point for many to say North Carolina is a “different” team than the one Duke faced in February. Williams’ switch to a four-guard lineup prior the Heels’ loss in Durham has sparked a titillating run, as they come into Saturday with six straight victories—five of which came by double digits.
The winning streak has taken North Carolina from the poor house (the bubble) to, well, upper middle class (a No. 6 seed, per ESPN’s Joe Lunardi). With a home contest against their biggest rival, the North Carolina would ascend even further heading into the ACC Tournament, possibly as high as a No. 4 seed. All of it sparked by Williams’ decision to buck positional trends and simply play his best five guys.
That said, Duke is also a “different” team than the one that beat the Heels at Cameron Indoor. Kelly’s return should play an integral factor, and the Blue Devils have to be bent on locking up a No. 1 seed prior to the tournament phase.
So yes, the Blue Devils are yet to beat a .500 team on the road. They’re also yet to play one with Ryan Kelly in the lineup. One player obviously doesn’t mean everything, but the rotational comfort his presence gives Coach K and the entire Blue Devils team is invaluable.
It will be a close contest, but look for Duke to pull away on free throws late.
Final Score Prediction: Duke 81, North Carolina 76