Round one of the 2011 edition of college basketball’s greatest rivalry is in the books after the No. 5 Duke Blue Devils ousted the North Carolina Tar Heels 79-73 on Wednesday. With only a month until tournament time, bid wars are heating up throughout conferences, and each game is becoming increasingly important.
And though both of these ACC squads should be in without a hitch, Wednesday’s game boosted each side’s stock significantly while visually reiterating the drama and intensity that underlie this rivalry.
With nine titles between them, including the two most recent ones, program history alone could make the case for tournament acceptance every year.
But the Big East has gradually replaced the ACC as the premiere conference in college hoops. Bracket experts are speculating as many as 10 Big East bids this year compared to just three or four ACC bids.
Translation? Every game, especially conference matchups, is critical for both Duke and UNC at this juncture. Wednesday’s game illustrated the must-win mentality invoked by both teams, and shed some light on how they can potentially emulate their recent championship-winning predecessors and make a run come March.
It starts with guard play, the primary driver of success in college hoops, and in particular, the point guard position.
Starting with the defending champion Blue Devils (22-2, 9-1), who were physically and skillfully dominated in the first half but overcame a 14-point deficit to win.
Three point shooting has become synonymous with Duke offense, and Wednesday’s bout at Cameron showcased that as Duke launched 26 shots from downtown, hitting eight.
Senior shooting guard Nolan Smith got nine of his 34 from beyond the arc to boost his three-point shooting percentage to a sizzling .358, while sophomore guard Seth Curry sank two bombs on a 75 percent shooting night.
The combination of each guard’s streaky second half shooting eventually won the game, but proved that Duke needs to expand offensively. They have lived and died by three-pointers recently, which has already carried them as far as can reasonably be expected (a title last year and the fourth best scoring offense this year).
This year's losses to Florida State and St. Johns came on ambitious, yet unsuccessful, nights from downtown, and Duke doesn't appear to have learned its lesson.
This writer isn’t saying they should alter their fundamental offensive identity, just expand it.
They have talent underneath in Mason Plumlee, and if Smith can become more mobile off screens and draw double teams, the low-post game can improve drastically.
Last year, the Blue Devils had an experienced point guard in Jon Scheyer, who could not only shoot the three, but create open looks through ball screens and drives. The loss of freshman sensation Kyree Irving (and Wednesday’s temporary sidelining of Tyler Thornton) at the position has reduced them to a catch-and-shoot team with little motion and patience offensively.
On Wednesday, Duke used Seth Curry to fill the void at point, removing him from his natural two position (much like the Golden State Warriors have done with his older brother Stephen Curry).
It resulted in victory solely because the backcourt got hot in the second half, and the frontcourt heightened its defensive intensity and forced more turnovers. It won’t carry this team to another title, especially when veteran small forward Kyle Singler has an off night like he did on Wednesday.
While it’s uncertain if Irving will return from his big toe injury, it is fairly certain that this team dynamic functions best with Curry off the bench.
Wednesday’s game illustrated a soft side to Duke’s low-post game, as UNC dominated in terms of points in the paint, high-percentage shots; and in the first half, offensive rebounding. The Blue Devils need an athletic point guard to create open shots for the wing shooters and integrate some sort of fast break element into the offense.
Turning to Carolina (17-6, 7-2), that’s exactly what they have in freshman Kendall Marshall, who recently replaced Larry Drew as the starting point guard. Like Ty Lawson before him, Marshall exhibits outstanding speed, vision, and distribution in the open floor. Unlike Lawson, however, he doesn’t finish particularly well off the drive, but that will come with time.
Transition offense has always been integral to Carolina’s system under Roy Williams, and Marshall is the man to facilitate it.
UNC’s championship team of 2009 had that speed, but also an imposing low-post presence in Tyler Hansbrough and Deion Thompson. Both were avid rebounders who created countless second chance points and eased pressure on perimeter shooters.
Judging from Wednesday’s game, John Henson and Tyler Zeller have the potential to duplicate that duo’s success, combining for 38 points and 25 rebounds against the Dukies.
Even with freshman small forward Harrison Barnes improving, Carolina still lacks a player who is both a ball-handler and pure scorer. They have the interior talent to create offensive rhythm though motion, and the speed to shake it up in the open floor; they just need to establish a synthesis of the two.
Wednesday’s game was undoubtedly emblematic of each team’s defensive style, too. Carolina operated man-to-man defense to disallow wing shooters their space on the perimeter, while Duke employed its traditional full-court press to trap and pressure its young opponents.
It was nip-and-tuck defensively for a while, but in the end, the shooters determined the outcome, as they often do in college basketball.
Any Duke-UNC game mandates pulling out all the stops, but in this game, each squad stuck to its bones, revealing some key strengths and weaknesses in the process. Until they battle again on March 5th, this game serves as a perpetual reminder of what will and won’t carry these teams deep into the NCAA tournament.