Duke and North Carolina.
Just putting the two schools in the same sentence evokes memories of some of the greatest college basketball moments in the history of the game. We are talking about legends like Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith and Michael Jordan, historical basketball arenas, two of the most passionate fanbases in the country and a rivalry powerful enough to split families and inspire mutual respect at the same time.
When the Blue Devils and Tar Heels meet on Saturday, college basketball fans will be treated to a showdown between two of the hottest teams in the country vying for postseason positioning.
Duke has won 11 of its past 13 games, while North Carolina is riding high on a 12-game winning streak of its own. One of those 12 wins came against Duke in a game that was largely defined by the Tar Heels’ 43-30 rebounding advantage and physicality down low.
Let’s dig into a quick position-by-position breakdown. The starting lineups used here are the same ones each coach used in the first game between these two teams.
Point Guard: Rasheed Sulaimon (Duke) vs. Marcus Paige (North Carolina)
The switch to Rasheed Sulaimon at the point has been a fruitful one for Krzyzewski.
Sulaimon is the best perimeter defender on the Duke roster, can shoot from beyond the three-point line and isn’t afraid of the big moment. He certainly matches up better (particularly on the defensive side) with Marcus Paige than Quinn Cook does.
However, Paige is one of the best point guards in the country.
He is the go-to option for the Tar Heels late in games, is scoring 17 points a night and is the one true threat Roy Williams has from deep. The nod here goes to Paige.
Advantage: North Carolina
Shooting Guard: Tyler Thornton (Duke) vs. Leslie McDonald (North Carolina)
Leslie McDonald has seen his share of ups and downs this season.
The Tar Heels would certainly like him to be more consistent from behind the three-point line and more selective with some of his shot attempts. However, he torched the Blue Devils for 21 points in the last matchup, which is hard to ignore in this context.
As for Tyler Thornton, he is what he is at this point in his career.
He isn’t going to score a lot of points most nights, but he is a solid defender and has excellent court vision and leadership intangibles. Thornton is a dangerous three-point shooter when left open and has a knack for hitting big shots when the opportunity arises.
However, McDonald is simply the better player who certainly exploited this matchup at times in the first game.
Advantage: North Carolina
Forward: Jabari Parker (Duke) vs. James Michael McAdoo (North Carolina)
The forward positions are where we start delving into Duke’s biggest advantages.
Jabari Parker is one of the best players in the country and could potentially be the next No. 1 pick for a reason. He can score from anywhere, has established a post game in the second half of the season, is attacking the rim with regularity and is arguably the best rebounder Duke has at its disposal.
James Michael McAdoo has put together an impressive season in his own right on both ends of the floor and on the glass. That being said, he is no Parker.
Forward: Rodney Hood (Duke) vs. J. P. Tokoto (North Carolina)
Rodney Hood would be the main attraction on almost any team in the country, and he has done an excellent job of thriving in Parker’s considerable shadow.
Hood is a dangerous long-range shooter, is nearly automatic on the free-throw line and could be the best overall defender on Duke’s roster. His rebounding leaves something to be desired, but his offensive efficiency and defensive prowess more than make up for that.
J.P. Tokoto simply doesn’t have the athleticism to keep up with Hood for an entire game on the road.
Tokoto is a solid scorer and rebounder in his own right, but, much like McAdoo with Parker, the Tar Heels are simply outclassed by an elite player in this individual matchup.
Center: Amile Jefferson (Duke) vs. Kennedy Meeks (North Carolina)
For a while in the middle of the ACC season, Amile Jefferson did an impressive job of stopping the Duke rebounding issues as his minutes gradually increased.
He is a solid presence down low on defense, can score from the block when given the opportunities and isn’t afraid to mix it up on the offensive glass. He is the more athletic player in this matchup and will take advantage of that throughout the game.
Kennedy Meeks may have the physical edge here, but Jefferson’s athleticism will give him problems. Brice Johnson, who is quicker than Meeks, will see some minutes as well, but Duke gets the nod in this matchup.
Prediction: Duke 83, North Carolina 78
Krzyzewski was not pleased with his team’s effort level in the first game against the Tar Heels, as was evidenced by his comments he made in the postgame press conference that were passed along by ESPN.com:
We looked tired or we didn't have life. And no matter what we did in a timeout, we just didn't have that spark -- the anger, the emotion, the thing you have to have to match what their crowd, their team is doing. You have to try to counter that. And I just felt we were, we didn't have the life that you needed to have.
Finding a spark shouldn’t be an issue for the Blue Devils in front of the Cameron Crazies.
With a No. 1 seed ripe for the taking with all the recent attrition at the top of the polls in college basketball and the revenge factor against an archrival serving as extra motivation, Duke will control a tight game from the outset.
Look for the Blue Devils to take an important step toward a possible No. 1 seed on Selection Sunday.
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