The Chapel Hill perspective on tonights battle of good vs evil should be out shortly. Let’s toss it up!
The moment that we’ve been waiting 11 months for is finally close enough that we can smell it like warm bread in the oven. (Mmmm… warm basketball bread….) Tar Heel fans certainly must be excited about finally getting the chance to have the soap-in-the-mouth-punishment from last year’s trip to Cameron be put a little further in the rear view mirror. But what does tonight’s game mean for Duke, and what might we expect from them. Glad you asked.
Obviously the most important thing at stake is defending home court for first place in the ACC. All the preseaon prognostication was giving Duke the ACC in a landslide. So for them to fall behind Carolina would certainly be quite a coup. One of the talking heads on ESPN rightly said last week that the media tends to over-react when Duke looses - both in the “What’s wrong with the Devils” kind of way and in the “Team X that beat Duke is now really riding high” kind of way. If UNC is able to get a win tonight both sides of that horse are going to take a very serious and very prolonged beating. But the ACC season wouldn’t be over yet. And as we sometimes have to remind Baby Blue Nation, best record in the regular season is NOT an ACC Championship. Still I don’t think Coach K and the Duke squad want to be answering questions about how they aren’t atop the ACC leader board. They like the view from the top.
One could also argue that the Smith/Singler legacy (while not hanging in the balance) is going to have an important chapter written tonight. They both still have the chance to be 3 time ACC champs, but in the context of the rivalry they both have some work to do in order to claim they gave more than they got in four years. Duke fans will have to forever listen to people yammer about Tyler Hansborough’s record in Cameron (which had more to do with Ty Lawson imo) because these games matter a lot to the fans. I expect both seniors to be focused and motivated to not loose to Carolina at home for the last time.
Zeke also pointed out in his look at Duke that tonight’s game is also a bit of a proving ground for the Devils. Kyrie Irving’s injury has taken Duke out of the inner circle of the National Championship conversation - which is not necessarily a bad thing. Better for this team to stay hungry. But looking at the rest of the schedule doesn’t fill me with a sense that it’s an especially good preparation for the only tournament that really matters. UNC seems to have made a clear step up into the arena of tourney ready teams. So the added intensity that this rivalry puts on will likely be one of the few remaining tests that will more accurately mimic the pressure of a meaningful NCAA game.
As far as what we can expect tonight, here are a few things I’m looking forward to:
- Tyler Thornton vs Kendall Marshall - Two guys that know each other well from high school. Marshall is going to play more minutes and likely to have a bigger stat line, but can Thornton be a thorn in his side? Marshall obviously represents a much more important fulcrum upon which his team rests, so I would hope Duke goes after him on their offensive end. How well he handles the pressure D from Thornton and Nolan Smith will be a big factor if UNC hopes to win.
- Font Line Battle - UNC is one of the best rebounding teams in the country and has two starters who can score with their back to the basket. (plus Knox who can chip in) Mason Plumlee has had some better games of late and will be a force on the boards - but a key for the Devils to try and be at least close to even will be if Miles Plumlee and Ryan Kelley can stay out of foul trouble and just be a presence on the floor. If I were betting I might put money on both of them having foul problems - so Coach K may end up facing the choice of going small or playing Josh Hairston.
- 3 vs 3 - This point is actually a two headed allusion to the battle of the 3 Men (Singler vs Barnes) and the three point shot. Barnes and Singler looks like a great matchup on paper and I hope they get to guard each other. Both represent the answer to the match-up problem presented by the other. The best chance of success for each would be to go at the guy: Barnes driving and Kyle trying to post up. But both tend to play on the perimeter, where they can be deadly. (though Barnes’ positive sample size is much smaller) Duke as a team probably needs to be +4-5 in made threes to win the game since they are likely to be behind on points in the paint. Thankfully they have the shooters to do it.
- Know your Role!! These intense games tend to have at least one unexpected source step up to sway the outcome. Could Duke get some unlooked for points from Kelley or Miles? Bullock or McDonald catching fire from deep? It’s hard to say who, but I feel pretty confident it’ll happen.
- Freebies - UNC shoots an embarrassing 65% as a team but Duke counters with Mason Plumlee who is threatening to shoot below the baseball Mendoza line for the year. (now 38%. Yikes!) I won’t be surprised if there are a lot of fouls in this game, so expect the charity stripe efficiency to be important.
Well this was a bit longer than I planned - but maybe that’s because I’m really looking forward to the game. Thanks Tar Holes for getting your season off life-support just in time. Here’s hoping we can put you right back in the metaphorical ICU.