Will Duke Top Off Season-Saving Turnaround with Upset Win over North Carolina?

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 16, 2016

Feb 8, 2016; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils head coach Mike Krzyzewski (R) talks to guard Grayson Allen (3) in the second half against the Louisville Cardinals at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports
Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

It's a pretty big ordeal every single time Duke and North Carolina get together, but Wednesday's game has an extra layer of intrigue as the Blue Devils seek to put another cherry on the crow sundae that the national media has been eating during this four-game winning streak.

No doubt about it, January was a disaster for the Blue Devils.

Against poor excuses for competition, they were able to tread water without Amile Jefferson for about a month. But then they started to drown, suffering four losses (at Clemson, vs. Notre Dame, vs. Syracuse and at Miami) in a span of less than two weeks to drop out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in nearly a decade.

With a brutal remaining schedule that included two games against North Carolina, two games against Louisville and one game each against Virginia, Florida State and Pittsburgh, it wasn't tough to see the writing on the wall for a 15-6 team with nothing better than a home win over Indiana on its resume.

Following the Jan. 25 loss to Miami, Seth Davis of Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports summarily tweeted out his thoughts on the suddenly hapless Blue Devils:

In his column after the Miami loss, Rob Dauster of NBC Sports wrote, "Once you get past the name on the jersey, you'll realize that this Duke team is simply not all that good right now."

On Jan. 28, Reid Forgrave of Fox Sports wrote, "It's not even February, and I'm throwing in the towel on this Duke season."

And on Jan. 29, Brian Hamilton of Sports Illustrated wrote: "It's reckless to count the Blue Devils out. But it's delusional not to look up and realize that the ceiling looks a lot closer than it did not too long ago."

Wait a minute.

That last one was from Jan. 29, 2015.

My mistake.

But you remember what brought about those "The Sky Is Falling in Durham" columns last season, right? Duke was 4-3 in ACC play and had just dismissed Rasheed Sulaimon from the team. Despite a strong starting five and an outstanding freshman destined for a top-three draft pick in June, we couldn't stop ourselves from writing off the Blue Devils because of recent losses and the one player they didn't have.

Sound familiar?

Does this look like a team with a low ceiling?
Does this look like a team with a low ceiling?Gerry Broome/Associated Press

Fast forward 10 weeks and instead of going quietly into the night, the Blue Devils won 18 of their final 19 games, including the national championshipwhich is also precisely what they did in 2010 after suffering three losses that January.

I'm not saying Duke is necessarily destined to win 14 out of its next 15 in the process of claiming a second straight national title, but how are we continually surprised by a February turnaround that we've seen multiple times before?

As was the case last season when sprinkling in more zone defense worked wonders, a switch in defensive philosophy is largely to credit for Duke's drastic improvement in recent weeks.

After Jefferson went down, the short-handed Blue Devils were forced to play a lot more zone defense in order to conserve both fouls and energy.

But once the schedule got a bit tougher, that zone wasn't working.

Like, at all.

In the last three weeks of January, Duke's five opponents shot a combined 40.6 percent (39-of-96) from three-point range while averaging 12.8 offensive rebounds and just 8.2 turnovers per game. According to KenPom.com, the Blue Devils gave up 385 points in 319 possessions in those five games for a raw defensive efficiency of 120.7 that would rank dead last in the nation if maintained for the entire season.

As Dauster tweeted during the loss to Miami, the zone needed to go:

They have since implemented much more of their usual man-to-man defense with great returns, winning four straight against Georgia Tech, North Carolina State, Louisville and Virginia.

Duke still isn't God's gift to defense by any means, but its raw defensive efficiency over the past four games is down to 105.3despite facing pretty efficient offenses in Louisville and Virginia. Those four opponents shot 26.2 percent (16-of-61) from beyond the arc, offensive rebounds plunged to 10.0 per game, and turnovers forced went up slightly to 8.8.

Each is a small victory in those secondary categories, but it's not like Clemson, Notre Dame and Syracuse blew the Blue Devils out of the water. Minor tweaks were enough to pay major dividends.

But there's a fine line between home games against ACC contenders such as Louisville and Virginia and a road game against a bitter rival that just so happens to be the favorite to win the conference.

Fierce and improved as he may be, Marshall Plumlee has a tall task ahead of him on Wednesday
Fierce and improved as he may be, Marshall Plumlee has a tall task ahead of him on WednesdayGerry Broome/Associated Press

Moreover, it's one thing to deploy Marshall Plumlee and Brandon Ingram in man-to-man defense against teams that only really have one weapon in the post and another thing entirely to ask them to hold their own against a Tar Heels team with four players 6'8" or taller who are averaging at least 9.6 points per game.

Here's pretty much all you need to know about what North Carolina is going to do on offense: According to Sports-Reference.com, the Tar Heels are leading the ACC in scoring in conference play despite ranking dead last in the conference in made three-pointers. They are going to attack the rim as much as they possibly can.

The Plumdog has had an unbelievable breakout year as a seniorhe's averaging 35.7 minutes, 10.1 points and 9.7 rebounds per ACC game after putting up 8.8, 1.3 and 2.0 in those categories as a junior, respectivelybut there's little to no chance of him slowing down the combined force of Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks. And Chase Jeter has played a grand total of 20 minutes over the last eight games, so there still isn't much of a Plan B if Plumlee is unable to defend without fouling.

Asked how he plans to deal with Ingram, UNC head coach Roy Williams told reporters on Tuesday, "The easy thing is to put Brice on him and say 'You gotta get out there and guard him, but he's gotta guard you, too, in the low post.'"

If the Blue Devils are going to win this game, it will almost have to be the result of an offensive explosion for the ages.

Fortunately, that's feasible against a UNC defense that ranks 286th in the nation at defending the three, one that did absolutely nothing to slow down dribble penetration in recent losses to Louisville and Notre Dame.

ESPN's Dana O'Neil recently wrote about Grayson Allen being the next hated white Duke player, but there will be a whole new chapter in that story if he sets a new career high in scoring on Wednesday night. (If that's the goal, 34 is the target.)

Even that might not be enough, though.

We're always reminded to throw out the record books and stat sheets when these Tobacco Road adversaries come to blows, but the Tar Heels will certainly be favored by a few points when the betting line posts. And it shouldn't be a surprise when the spread grows a point or two wider throughout the day as bettors hammer the Tar Heels at home.

Just be aware that if you're part of that crowd, you're betting against a coach with 1,037 career wins who knows a thing or two about righting a sinking ship at this point in the season.

No one seems to know whether Jefferson will actually come back this seasonhe still has the option of taking a medical redshirt and returning next year—but based on what we've seen these past two weeks, Duke could win it all again this year even if he doesn't return.

Regardless of Wednesday's outcome, the Blue Devils are going dancing. They're back up to a projected No. 4 seed in the Bracket Matrix, thanks to 11 RPI Top 100 wins and only one bad loss (at Clemson) that really isn't all that bad. They would just about need to lose every remaining game to even drop into "bubble range."

Hell, Duke is so far removed from the bubble right now that a road win over North Carolina would put the Blue Devils on the outskirts of the No. 1 seed conversation. Follow it up with a road win over Louisville and it'll be nearly impossible to deny them a spot on the top line in next week's projected brackets.

How's that for a turnaround?

Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.


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