True Blue: Applying the ACC Championship Game to March Madness

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True Blue:  Applying the ACC Championship Game to March Madness
Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski locked horns three times in 2011, most recently in the ACC tournament title game. Duke outplayed UNC most of the game and prevailed 75-58

It was only too fitting that one of the oldest and most fervent rivalries in college basketball would decide a number one seeding in the 2011 NCAA tournament.  Though imbued with silver linings of respect, this rivalry is downright ugly at its core.  So it’s reasonable to assume that Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski expect this matchup to exemplify their players’ best shots physically and best game systematically.

For the Blue Devils at least, such was the case on Sunday.  In neutral Greensboro, Duke dominated the Tar Heels physically and technically, unveiling a game plan perfectly catered to its experience and personnel.  With Nolan Smith taking over at point guard, Duke’s offense executed ball screens for the slashing senior, which immediately opened the floor for sharpshooters Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins.  It was simple on paper, but it worked in practice for nearly forty minutes.

But not before the Blue Devils established some interior production from both Miles and Mason Plumlee.  Like a running back setting up the play-action bomb in football, Duke proved, against a superior frontcourt, it can stretch perimeter defenses from the inside out and create good looks for its shooters.  It suggested Duke progress towards more efficient three point shooting, which having a dynamic, slashing guard like Smith at point can provide.  If the front line can score early in big games and control the offensive glass as it did against UNC, Duke can set the tempo of the game and consistently create open looks like they did on Sunday.

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The Blue Devils came out firing on defense too, forcing five Carolina turnovers in as many minutes.  Full court press, half court traps, double teams on center Tyler Zeller, Duke threw the entire defensive package at its young rival on Sunday, and executed without getting into serious foul trouble.  They built a lead, kept it, and revealed North Carolina’s double-digit comebacks against Clemson and Miami as the different beasts they were.

It all bespeaks the Blue Devils’ experience, embodied in Coach K and Smith.  Small forward Kyle Singler is the third piece of the leadership puzzle, and though he’s struggled offensively as of late, the first couple games against weak opponents are ideal opportunities for him to regain his shooting groove.

And did everyone forget about Kyrie Irving?  The freshman point guard’s return, if significant, represents a fast-paced, full court threat; the icing on the Duke offensive cake.  In a tough Western bracket that includes Connecticut, Texas, and some serious sleepers like Marquette, Tennessee, and Arizona, the re-addition of Irving could easily be the game-changer for the defending champs.

Which is what Duke is, a fact too easily forgotten since repeats are rare in college basketball.  But Duke is just one of two schools (Florida) to repeat as tournament champs since the John Wooden era.  Coach K knows the drill, and he will re-integrate Irving efficiently if given the chance.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Freshman Harrison Barnes led the Heels with 16 points against Duke following a 40 point explosion against Clemson. Consistency has been his biggest issue all season.

As for North Carolina, the run to the conference championship game couldn’t have been much rockier.  The Heels came out flatter than pita bread against Miami and Clemson, miraculously overcoming double-digit deficits and squeaking out victories.  Fans can view those games as affirmations of the team’s resilience and second half efficacy against mediocre teams, but should be concerned about what they saw against Duke: neutralization of the full-court offense run by Kendall Marshall and Harrison Barnes.  The freshmen duo combined for just 24 points and struggled to finish at the rim.  They’re going to be a tenacious tandem in the future with improved midrange shooting and finishing in transition.  Carolina also looked astonishingly static on offense, forcing the ball inside and failing to spread the floor like Duke did.

The bottom line? Justifying a number two seed in that bracket is an ambitious undertaking for Roy Williams’s club.  Forget the sleepers, the East bracket has two conference tournament winners in Kentucky and Syracuse, and the number one overall seed in Ohio State. Tough enough as is, but even tougher considering the momentum these teams are carrying into the tournament. 

Carolina has already rebounded from last season, despite fielding a young team and losing starting point guard Larry Drew midseason.  And they can still be a force in the tournament if they establish some offensive motion and rhythm early on.  Relying on fast break points to erase leads doesn’t work against good teams, as Duke proved on Sunday, so its going to fall on the frontcourt of Henson and Zeller to get points in the paint and avoid the sizable deficits. 

Realistically?  They could reach the Elite Eight with some luck, but retaining this core group of players under Roy Williams’s tutelage would make that a near certainty next year.  The rebuilding phase officially ends in Chapel Hill after this season.

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