With Duke the clear favorite in this meeting of bitter rivals, the Blue Devils just need to stick with what's working against UNC, while the Tar Heels need to impose their preferred style of play.
Duke is in familiar territory as the no. 8 team in college basketball, but the Tar Heels are currently sitting outside the Top 25 after stumbling in ACC play.
Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood lead a high-scoring Blue Devil squad into the Dean Dome to face a North Carolina team that can't match their star power. In that regard, Duke's path to a road victory is clear.
But you can't count out the Heels—not in Chapel Hill and especially not when their strengths play perfectly into Duke's weaknesses. As long as Parker and Hood don't run away with this game before UNC can get into a groove, the underdog hosts have a shot.
Duke: Get Parker High-Percentage Looks
This is basic stuff: Parker is one of the best players in the nation, so when he's off, Duke suffers.
Everyone following that logic? Okay, good.
You'd think the same would hold true for Hood, though. The go-to Blue Devil swingman is incredibly potent as a second scoring option, but his output has not suffered the way Parker's has in Duke's five losses.
When Parker's cooking on offense, particularly inside, the opponent must bend its coverage toward him, opening up shots for ignored teammates and allowing Parker himself to pop out for threes to counter the defense collapsing inside.
Keep him out of the paint and contest his jumpers, however, and Duke becomes a different team, unable to replicate Parker's lost production.
That's why Parker and Duke have redoubled their efforts to get the star his attempts at the rim, to the glee of prospect analysts like B/R's own Jonathan Wasserman.
Jabari Parker last two games: 20-27 FGM-A (74%), 51 points, ZERO jumpers. Everything in the paint —> http://t.co/wgSYhxCqhz— Jonathan Wasserman (@NBADraftWass) February 11, 2014
If Parker beats UNC inside, opportunities will be there for every other Blue Devil to score, too. It's that simple.
UNC: Get Brice Johnson Involved
Duke has one player who measures seven feet tall, but it's Marshall Plumlee. No one else on the team is taller than 6'9", leaving the Blue Devils vulnerable to a team that can score inside.
Fortunately for the Heels, they can let loose Brice Johnson in the middle without suffering a size disadvantage.
Roy isn't showing his hand, but it sounds like he's thinking about putting Brice Johnson into the starting lineup. Depends on matchups.— Chris Moore (@CB_ChrisMoore) February 11, 2014
Johnson is North Carolina's best interior threat, leading the team with a 53.8 shooting percentage and tied with Kennedy Meeks with 6.7 rebounds per game.
Meeks is a true big man, but he lacks the quickness to defend anyone Duke will throw at him, most notably Amile Jefferson, who starts alongside Parker at forward.
That could actually turn into a silver lining for UNC, allowing Roy Williams to match up the smaller, quicker Johnson with Jefferson; both players are 6'9", 210 pounds, but Johnson is the more credible post player. In that scenario, Williams could lean on his superior scorer and spell with Meeks' size out of the second unit.
Though he's iffy on defense, Johnson has the athleticism to parry Jefferson and the skill to punish him on the other end. If Johnson gets going inside, Duke won't have much recourse to stop him.
Duke: Give Quinn Cook Help
If Duke can't protect the rim, it at least must stop Marcus Paige from breaking down the defense.
Paige is having a breakout year for the Heels, leading the team with 17.0 points and turning the ball over just 2.2 times per game. That's not what Duke wants to hear; the Blue Devils take their defensive cue from their point guard, and Quinn Cook is at his best when he's forcing turnovers.
The more you watch Quinn Cook play, the more it looks like he's arrived as a player. Can both score + facilitate. Had 8 steals vs. UCLA.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) December 20, 2013
Cook is a capable defender, but holding Paige in check shouldn't be Cook's job alone. Duke has to be proactive as a team to cut off Paige's driving lanes; after all, the Tar Heels don't have the shooters to make opponents pay when Paige gets contained.
Sending help from the wings will limit Paige's space without leaving UNC's inside scorers open. As an added bonus, that means Mike Krzyzewski can have his guys help without exposing Parker to more aggressive defensive scheming, and thus potential foul trouble.
UNC: Run Off Rebounds
How do the Tar Heels deal with their outside shooting woes? By getting to the rim—early, often and most importantly, quickly.
From Paige to James Michael McAdoo and all the way down the roster, UNC has guys who can turn and run as soon as the Heels secure the rebound, turning defensed shots into fastbreaks.
Credit the Carolina bigs as well; Williams' forwards are effective outlet passers, getting Paige the ball out ahead of the backpedalling defense and in position to either slash to the hoop himself or use his legs and his dribble to create an opening for a fellow Heel to score.
Marcus Paige on that Nick Van Exel ish— Eamonn Brennan (@eamonnbrennan) December 15, 2013
While the Blue Devils have the speed to keep up with Carolina, they don't have anyone they can count on to consistently contest the Tar Heels' attempts inside.
At the very least, running at every opportunity will sap some of Duke's energy and throw the team off balance. At the best, it could destabilize the Blue Devils enough for UNC to pull out the win.