The postponement of the Duke vs. UNC game may be a case of delayed gratification. Giving each team an extra week of games only has ratcheted up the anticipation for tipoff. Since the huge snowstorm in North Carolina caused the delay, both teams have continued their forward momentum and now will run into each other at maximum velocity.
Since the postponement of the Feb. 12 game, UNC fought out a victory against Pitt and then found its way back from an early deficit to get a road win over Florida State. Those two wins pushed the Tar Heels’ win streak to seven games.
Over that stretch, UNC has improved dramatically in two areas that just so happen to be weak spots for the Blue Devils. While James Michael McAdoo’s improved play and the occasional ability of a Tar Heel to hit a three has helped, UNC’s real strengths have emerged in rebounding and penetration.
UNC averages 41.1 rebounds per game. That’s the best in the ACC and eighth in the country. During their win streak, UNC bettered that already high percentage by averaging 41.9 rebounds.
More troubling for Duke is UNC particularly is aggressive in offensive rebounding. The Tar Heels average 12.9 offensive boards. The emphasis on the offensive glass allows players like Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks to take some of the scoring burden off of McAdoo and point guard Marcus Paige.
UNC also seeks to score points in the paint via penetration. Duke has struggled at times against guards intent on driving the lane, and Paige’s quickness easily could create problems for the Blue Devils. Similarly, McAdoo has the ability to drive from the high post to great effect.
Duke, meanwhile, has played two very different games since the postponed UNC matchup.
Maryland’s final trip to Cameron Indoor Stadium as an ACC opponent (before the Terrapins join the Big Ten) saw Duke’s usually electric offense blow a fuse. Duke shot 33.3 percent and went cold for long stretches of the game. Despite a struggling offense, the Blue Devils proved they could win, even if points were hard to come by.
When Maryland forward Charles Mitchell’s shot fell off the rim with only seconds remaining, it marked the third time this season that Duke has won a game on a defensive possession (the other two were Vermont and Virginia). This shows when Duke truly needs a stop on defense, they somehow find a way to get it.
Duke’s improved defense then was showcased Feb. 18 in a comfortable win over Georgia Tech. Full-court pressure forced the Yellow Jackets into 13 turnovers. High-intensity defense came in handy during the second half, when the hot shooting the Blue Devils enjoyed early in the game dissipated. Nevertheless, unrelenting defense never let Georgia Tech cut the lead to single digits in the second half.
So the story going into the rescheduled rivalry game revolves around which team has most improved since mid-January. The Tar Heels have refocused themselves around scoring from high-percentage shots in the paint. Duke has sought to correct a defense that was woeful at the start of the season and directly contributed to two ACC losses in early January.
If the Blue Devils are unable to stop UNC’s inside scoring, then Duke is in line for another conference loss. Points in the paint continue to be an Achilles' heel for Duke, even though they are nowhere near as weak inside as they were at the beginning of the season.
Fortunately, even if the Tar Heels are able to get inside and score, Duke’s 41 percent three-point shooting is good enough to outpace the more deliberate UNC style of play. The Tar Heels have improved on perimeter defense, but it remains an area of concern for the team. This lack of perimeter defense could lead to open shots, and if the Blue Devils are hitting from three, the game is all but over.
Moreover, UNC is traditionally a run-and-gun sort of squad. This year, however, it’s Duke that enjoys the more high-tempo style of play. UNC coach Roy Williams may need to pull in the reins on his players, lest they lapse into an up-and-down game with a Blue Devils team that boasts far more scoring options.
In the end, I think Duke comes away with a 76-71 victory that boils down to the Tar Heels being one of the few teams that’s worse from the free-throw line than the Blue Devils.