It’s that time again.
There are storied rivalries throughout sports, but there are only a few clashes that rise above the rest and deserve their own chapter. There is Ohio State and Michigan in football, the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox in baseball and the Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers in football.
And there’s Duke and North Carolina in basketball.
The whole college hoops world stops when Duke and North Carolina face off. In fact, it would draw headlines if the Blue Devils and Tar Heels battled in a chess match, so you know a showdown on the hardwood between two red-hot squads is important.
After a slow start, Roy Williams’ team has won five games in a row to climb back to the upper half of the ACC standings. Mike Krzyzewski’s squad, which stuttered out of the gates in conference play as well, has won seven out of its past eight contests, with the only defeat coming in overtime against No. 1 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome.
While the cliche that records should get thrown out the window in rivalry games does hold some merit, on paper and in the rankings, the Blue Devils are the better team.
With that in mind, what are the keys from Duke's perspective to avoid an upset?
Duke can beat North Carolina even if it doesn’t win the battle on the boards, but it has to at least keep the deficit respectable.
The Blue Devils rank 184th in the country in total rebounds per game, while the Tar Heels check in at an impressive ninth. Statistically speaking, this is the biggest disparity between the two rivals, which should cause some concern for Blue Devils fans.
However, Duke has been a better rebounding team as of late, largely because of Amile Jefferson’s emergence down low and Jabari Parker’s willingness to mix it up in the paint.
Marshall Plumlee will likely be available, but he is not 100 percent, which means even more responsibility will fall on Jefferson’s shoulders. Duke cannot afford to let the Tar Heels clean up the glass and score on easy second-chance opportunities.
That will be easier said than done against James Michael McAdoo and company.
Employ Rasheed Sulaimon at Point for Stretches
It seems like a lifetime ago that Rasheed Sulaimon was sitting on the end of the bench for the entirety of Duke’s victory over Michigan.
He has seen his production and playing time gradually increase since, largely because he is now a part of the point guard rotation.
Jordan Brenner, a contributing writer for ESPN Magazine, thinks that is where Sulaimon’s future lies:
Sulaimon is a better defender than Quinn Cook and uses his athleticism to create ball pressure and turnovers. He is also second on the team in assists, so distributing the ball as a penetrator isn’t an issue.
It’s a credit to how hard Sulaimon works that he has seen an uptick in production, as he told Adam Smith of the Times-News:
It’s crazy how things work. I just try to take what happened to me earlier this season and just use it and remember where I came from. I have to continue to not get too high or get too low, just continue to work hard and keep my head down.
Look for Sulaimon to play a deciding factor against North Carolina.
Keep Amile Jefferson out of Foul Trouble
As previously mentioned, North Carolina’s biggest advantage on paper is in the rebounding department.
With Plumlee dealing with a knee issue and Josh Hairston a complete non-factor, Jefferson is the only reliable big guy Krzyzewski will have at his disposal. If Jefferson were to get in foul trouble, Duke would have to go small, which could create some mismatches in its favor but would also leave the middle completely vulnerable to the formidable Tar Heels rebounders.
As long as Jefferson stays in the game, Duke should be able to keep the rebounding margin close.
Hit the Open Threes
As of Tuesday, North Carolina ranked 16th in Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted defensive efficiency rankings (AdjD).
You don’t become a top-20 defense nationally by giving up a lot of opportunities at the rim, although Duke’s top-ranked offense in the same rankings will likely create more chances than the likes of Notre Dame and Clemson.
The Tar Heels will collapse on Parker, Rodney Hood, Cook and Sulaimon when they get inside, which will open up some chances from behind the three-point line. Andre Dawkins, Tyler Thornton and Sulaimon (when he’s not the one penetrating) must make North Carolina pay for crowding the middle.
Hitting a number of three-pointers is the best way for Duke to counterbalance what will likely be a rebounding advantage for North Carolina.
Get out to a Quick Start
Winning on the road is never an easy task, regardless of the opponent, and a game at North Carolina is certainly more imposing than one at Clemson or even Notre Dame.
All three of Duke’s conference losses have come away from home, and it cannot afford a slow start in this rivalry clash. It would get the fans involved and give the Tar Heels, who already have victories over Michigan State, Louisville and Kentucky, early confidence.
If the more talented Blue Devils can create some separation in the first half, expect them to gradually pull away.
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