UNC Finds Its Blueprint to Repeat as Champions in Win over Duke

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystFebruary 9, 2018

Kenny Williams scored 20 in North Carolina's win over Duke
Kenny Williams scored 20 in North Carolina's win over DukeGerry Broome/Associated Press

The North Carolina Tar Heels have not spent much time this season looking like a threat to repeat as the national champions of men's college basketball, but it could happen if Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson keep playing like they did in Thursday night's 82-78 statement win over the Duke Blue Devils.

The irony is that neither indispensable veteran played a part in last year's title run, as Johnson was at Pittsburgh and Williams missed the final 14 games with a knee injury. But they were the stars of this installment of the Tobacco Road rivalry in Chapel Hill.

UNC's two wings each made 50 percent of his three-point attempts against Duke, finishing the night a combined 10-of-20 from beyond the arc with 38 points.

Williams was responsible for six of those triples, four of which he made within the first seven minutes and 20 seconds. Duke looked like the dominant team at the outset, scoring almost at will. But Williams kept the Tar Heels within striking distance with those early buckets. He also had a pair of deep daggers in the second half to help North Carolina pad its lead.

It was a long-awaited bounce-back performance from a guy who shot 3-of-21 from the perimeter in his final six games in January.

Johnson was the bigger star, though, and his presence on the glass is what could push this team to new heights.

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Cameron Johnson wins a fight for a loose ball.
Cameron Johnson wins a fight for a loose ball.Gerry Broome/Associated Press

The graduate transfer finished with 18 points and a career-high 13 rebounds. Not bad for a 6'8" shooting guard who was facing a team that had 6'10" Wendell Carter Jr., 6'11" Marvin Bagley III and 6'11" Marques Bolden all on the floor at the same time for a stretch of about five minutes in the second half.

Duke is one of the best rebounding teams in the nation, but because of Johnson, the undersized Tar Heels finished plus-seven on the glass in the win.

North Carolina did enter the night leading the nation in rebounding margin, but it's still hard to believe this group of guys out-rebounded that group of guys. I mean, just look at how much more air Duke's leading rebounder got than UNC's leading rebounder (for the season) on the opening tip, courtesy of Sporting News' Ryan Fagan:

Based on pure athleticism, Duke should have owned the glass all night. It borders on absurdity that Bagley and Carter ended up with the same number of rebounds as Johnson and Luke Maye.

But that 41-34 rebounding margin is a testament to how this game went. Bagley (15 points, 16 rebounds) was responsible for nearly half of Duke's boards, while his teammates seemed to just be standing around and waiting for him to carry them to the finish line. Meanwhile, guys like Johnson, Maye (eight rebounds) and Theo Pinson (seven rebounds) sold out for every 50-50 ball.

As a result, North Carolina was able to shoot 39 percent from the field and still beat what is arguably the most talented team in the country.

And that is a repeatable formula in March.

Perhaps the biggest reason North Carolina has (thus far) failed to live up to its typical potential as a Final Four-caliber team is its freshman big men haven't amounted to much.

Roy Williams gave Sterling Manley, Garrison Brooks and Brandon Huffman ample opportunity to prove themselves early in the season, but they never did. To his credit, Manley looks the part of a guy who could develop into a serious anchor in the paint for the next three years. He's not there yet, though, which means the two-bigs lineup that Williams has been employing for decades isn't a viable option. Those three guys combined for just 16 minutes, four points and six rebounds against Duke.

What that means is North Carolina is finally embracing the lineup that we've all known for a while to be this team's best path to success: Joel Berry II, Williams, Pinson, Johnson and Maye.

Kenny Williams might live in the weight room.
Kenny Williams might live in the weight room.Gerry Broome/Associated Press

It's not conventional Tar Heels basketball by any stretch of the imagination. Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks combined to make one three-pointer in 12 seasons, and now they have a starting center who has attempted at least two three-pointers in all but one game this year. However, this is the result of Tony Bradley unexpectedly going the one-and-done route last season and leaving this program scrambling to figure out its frontcourt situation.

Here's the big question: Can Johnson keep this up?

This isn't the first time North Carolina has looked like a championship contender while getting a big night on the glass from the former Pitt Panther. In his first start for the Tar Heels, he went for 14 points and 11 rebounds in a 96-66 shellacking of Boston Collegewhich was 2-2 in ACC play at the time with a win over Duke and losses to Virginia and Clemson by a combined margin of five points, so don't roll your eyes at the idea of a win over Boston College proving something.

Johnson has only played in 14 games, but the Tar Heels are 4-1 when he grabs at least five rebounds and 2-4 when he gets three or fewer. (And those two wins were home games against Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh, which hardly even count.)

If he keeps doing enough on the glass and Williams keeps hitting some shots from downtown, this is a starting five that can win a national championship. Nothing the Tar Heels do the rest of the way will be enough to push them ahead of the likes of Villanova and Virginia on the list of favorites to win it all, but they at least have a shot.

No rational-minded person would have made that claim before this win over the Blue Devils.

                  

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

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