Duke-North Carolina: Five Things To Watch For

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Duke-North Carolina: Five Things To Watch For
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Although many are looking at Wednesday night's game between No. 7 Duke and unranked arch-nemesis North Carolina as a mismatch, the latest edition of this classic rivalry features interesting storylines.

For Duke, it's a chance to turn the tide on Tobacco Road against a worse-than-expected UNC team and solidify its hold on the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference standings in what was expected by many to be a rebuilding year.

For Carolina, it's a chance for their newcomers to shine on one of the largest stages in college basketball and turn around a season in which their NCAA Tournament hopes may be nearly gone.

No matter what the standings say, games between these titans of the hardwood are always special. Here are five factors that will determine who will take home bragging rights in the Old North State.

 

1. The performance of North Carolina's freshmen

UNC's inexperience has obviously been the largest contributing factor to their struggles this season. With veterans like Larry Drew II and Deon Thompson underperforming this year, no freshman has risen to pick up the slack.

John Henson has been one of the Tar Heels' few bright spots in losses to Virginia Tech and Maryland, but he is getting little help from the likes of Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald, and the Wear brothers, who have been mostly unspectacular.

Together, this highly-touted freshman class is only averaging 19 points per game, leaving most of the scoring burden on Carolina's starters.

Furthermore, this will be the first Duke/Carolina game for the freshmen. They have not responded well to playing in pressure-packed ACC games this year, even at home. Can they step up against Duke, or will they be rattled once again?

 

2. Duke's perimeter offense

The Blue Devils are no longer a blatantly "live by the three, die by the three" team as in seasons past. The Plumlee brothers have added some size inside, and Lance Thomas has improved his interior game.

However, Duke still lacks a true elite scoring big man a la Shelden Williams, and while Nolan Smith and Jon Scheyer have had more success this season with dribble penetration than in previous years, it's not something Duke can completely count on with stalwart defender Marcus Ginyard and shot-blocking center Ed Davis on the floor.

Duke's outside game has keyed many victories this year. The Devils have shot a very impressive 39 percent from beyond the arc this season, tied for 23rd in the nation and first in the ACC.

With North Carolina's defense struggling this year, their reliance on inexperienced guards to defend against Duke's three-point aces could spell disaster for the Heels. The only question is whether Duke will have a hot or cold shooting night.

 

3. Turnover margin

The Tar Heels have the ACC's worst defense in terms of points allowed per game. With their struggles against opposing shooters, mistake-free play on the offensive side of the ball that doesn't lead to easy chances for the opposition has become an absolute necessity.

Unfortunately for UNC, this has not happened. Carolina has turned the ball over more than 16 times per game this year, including a 25-turnover performance at Clemson that resulted in the game becoming a laugher.

No one has struggled with ball control more lately than point guard Larry Drew, who has turned the ball over 26 times in UNC's last seven games (record: 1-6).

Duke may be the last team that the Heels would want to continue this trend against. While Duke does not have overly athletic players that can create fast breaks easily, the Devils do bring the ACC's top-scoring offense to Chapel Hill: an offense that knows how to make the most of every possession.

Continued turnovers by UNC will allow Duke's ball-control offense to slow the pace of the game and disrupt Carolina's tempo.

 

4. Rotation management

The number of minutes bench players are receiving has been a point of debate this season for fans of both schools.

Don't be surprised to see John Henson and David Wear play significant minutes on Wednesday night after solid performances in their last two games; these two guys could give Duke problems off the bench, especially as Duke lacks the speed to guard Henson in one-on-one defense.

Roy Williams seemed to have reservations about playing his freshmen for too long in earlier ACC games; however, with his stable of upperclassmen thin and underperforming, he may not have a choice against Duke.

On the Duke side, expect a heavy dose of the 7'1" Brian Zoubek to contend with Ed Davis, especially as starting center Miles Plumlee has seen much more limited minutes in the past two games.

What Mike Krzyzewski decides to do with brother Mason may also have a huge impact on this game; Mason might be the most foul-prone Blue Devil as of late, and looks unsure of himself in the paint. If UNC can get him into foul trouble, Duke's inside presence may be stretched quite thin.

Finally, look for Dexter Strickland to get significant minutes if Larry Drew continues to struggle. Strickland has been playing nearly 17 minutes per game and is turning the ball over far less than Drew.

 

5. Impact of the Dean Dome

Much has been made of Duke's road struggles this year...and not without cause. The tale can be told by looking at the two home-and-home series in the ACC that the Devils have played so far this year.

Duke won in blowouts over Georgia Tech and Boston College in Durham, but lost to the Yellow Jackets and scraped only a three-point victory over the Eagles on the road.

Combine those games with a flat performance at N.C. State and getting their doors blown off at Georgetown, and serious doubts arise as to whether Duke can deal with the pressure of true road games.

Despite Duke's struggles, signs do point to a few possible breaks for the Blue Devils. First, all but one of Duke's road losses were to excellent squads in Wisconsin, Georgia Tech, and Georgetown.

Second, Duke performed very well at Clemson in one of the ACC's marquee games of the year, stifling the Tigers' offense and coming away with a 60-47 victory at Littlejohn Coliseum.

Third, the win over Boston College on Saturday was one in which Duke controlled most of the game. The close final margin was due to a late BC run; for most of the game, Duke seemed unfazed by the crowd at Conte Forum.

Finally, North Carolina has not held serve at home this year, posting a 1-3 home record in ACC play, which includes double-digit losses to Wake Forest and Virginia.

While North Carolina has taken four in a row from Duke at Cameron Indoor Stadium, Duke has won three of the last five contests at the Smith Center.

Duke's "Big Three" of Scheyer, Smith, and Kyle Singler (along with Lance Thomas and Brian Zoubek) all have played at least three games each at the Dome, including an 89-78 victory in 2008.

 

Prediction

North Carolina will certainly throw everything it has at Duke in front of the raucous Tar Heel faithful. However, Duke's "Big Three" have been nearly unstoppable this season, which will spell disaster for UNC's struggling defense.

While Carolina has gotten good offensive production this year in terms of points, their turnover problems have only gotten worse, and the Blue Devils' stingy defense should force lots of takeaways.

Duke wins, 85-76.

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