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A Rivers Runs Three It or What We Learned From the Duke/UNC game

To be honest, folks, I can't believe I was able to sleep at all on Wednesday night.

A game for the ages that left Duke fans disbelieving and ecstatic and Carolina fans disbelieving and cataleptic, also left us all very tired Thursday. I know that blogmate Zeke was up 'til 5 or 6 am in a less-merry-than-usual old England while blogmate Alex was so consumed that he watched the game again in it's entirety here in very merry old Durham. Now that's dedication.

     When a little bit of the shock had worn off, I found that the overwhelming sentiment from both sides  in the Twitosphere, the FB-osphere, the textosphere, and the various fan boards was some version of  "How the hell did that happen?" I mean, most of us are smart and honest enough to recognize that UNC won the majority of the rounds in this one. Duke's initial flurry took the first 12 minutes 32-25 on the scorecard. Then UNC just pummeled the Devils to the tune of 57 - 40 over the next 26 minutes.  At that point the game ( in my mind) was largely about getting out of Chapel Hill with a loss that wasn't embarrassing and for most UNC fans (and I'm probably projecting here) was about how and to whom the gloating would be done.  Then, suddenly and incredibly at the 2:13 mark, UNC lost their poise, took a few body-blows, and then collectively dropped their gloves and got popped right in the puss with a big ol' Rivers roundhouse.

Don't Call it a Comeback!

Any 10 point comeback with 2 minutes must necessarily involve to some degree 1) A lack of offensive execution on the team with the lead (2 turnovers and 2-4 FT shooting in the final 4 possessions)   2) Clutch shooting on the part of the team that is behind (4-5 from the floor including three 3-pointers, not-counting the Tyler Zeller tip-in)  3) A wee bit of good fortune (See number 2 and Zeller, Tyler) and 4) probably a last second, crowd-silencing, grab-your-head-in-abject-disbelief-if-you're-a-fan-of-the-choking-er-I-mean-losing-team shot of some kind.  Suffice it to say, this kind of thing doesn't happen often in basketball, period.  And to have it happen in a game of this stature is just remarkable.  Frankly, what happened to Carolina is exactly the kind of final 3-5 minutes-of-the-game performance I have come to expect from my Devils this year. So to have ye olde scripte flippede, and on the Holes of Tar no less, is, let's just say, extremely gratifying.  As my buddy remarked, " The best thing about winning the game like that is knowing that Carolina fans will get to watch that shot dropping in for the next 20 years, whenever these teams play."

Anywise, here are some of my takeaways from the game.
  • Duke's defense still stinks (and so, frankly, does Carolina's) - Duke really only does two things halfway decently defensively. One is their 3-point defense (4th in the ACC).  As it happens, Carolina is 9th in the conference in made threes. This played out as you might then suppose, with UNC going 1-6 from distance. What being good at defending 3's means for this Duke team, however, is that seemingly anyone with two legs and an ability to dribble a basketball can drive by our defenders at will. We made Kendall Marshall look like friggin' JWill out there at times (and JWill he ain't.). In effect, with this style, Coach K is declaring he'd rather give up more easy twos than easy threes. That in itself is nothing new, but the problem is that this team gives up so many easy twos that the cost/benefit analysis isn't really supporting that particular choice anymore. The defense has been bad all year and unless Coach K switches things up and packs the D in a little, I don't see that changing. The other thing that Duke does well is a little known defensive stat I like to call Free Throw Percentage Defense. Duke is holding ACC opponents to an ice cold 60% from the charity stripe this year and that's got to be the best in the ACC (though I have neither the patience or interest to verify this). I don't know what we're doing or how we're doing it, but it would be great to keep it going. UNC, it seems, is also able to work some mysterious mojo of their own. Though the numbers will tell you differently, they completely fail the eyeball test when it comes to defense, and particularly when it comes to defending the 3. I have seen UNC opponents (including Duke Wednesday night) miss more wide-open looks from distance than I can possibly describe. Maybe it's the Roy Williams power squat of doom that hexes the other teams or maybe the opposing players just freak at how wide-open they are, I don't know. Whatever it is, UNC better hope it keeps working, because outside of Henson and Bullock, the rest of their players are average defenders at best.
  • Austin Rivers aka Sub-Zero aka Austicles aka Double Edge is now the leader of this Duke Team - Yes, he's a freshman. Yes, he's a loaded gun. Yes, he looks for his shot first (and often second). Yes, he sometimes makes bad decisions with the ball. But you know what? The kid has BALLS, the kid HATES losing, the kid has sangfroids out the yang-yang (or yangfroids, if you will) and the kid sounds like a leader when he talks. This Duke team has lacked any sort of metaphorical center, any sort of go-to-guy, and any sort of collective will all year. We need someone to step up and be a spirited and galvanizing force. Would we rather see this from one of our upperclassmen? Sure, but it's too late for that now. We will hitch our wagon to this kid because, though sometimes a wildchild, he's absolutely the best option to lead this team going forward.
  • Mason Plumlee struggles against size - Duke has played nine ACC games and Mason has scored in double figures in only 4 of them. Those 4 games ( UMD, GT, Clemson, and UVA) were against teams with fairly small front lines. The five other games, in which he has averaged an anemic 8 points, were against teams (Miami,UNC,Wake,FSU, and VT) with legitimate size on the interior (with the exception of VT).  I don't know what conclusions there are to be drawn from this, other than that his apparent emergence as an offensive force may have been overstated. His rebounding has been, and continues to be, outstanding; which is crucial for Duke since he is their only player averaging more than 6 rebounds per game.
  • UNC's best offense is a missed shot - I'm being tongue-in-cheek here, obviously, since Zeller and Barnes are pretty dadgum capable offensive players. But let me put it this way: UNC had an off night and finished with a "paltry" 14 offensive boards, which is two below their #2 nationally ranked 16 ORPG average. For perspective, the second best ACC team in that category is Maryland (surprisingly) at 12 per game. Given that UNC has the tallest starting 5 in the country, these numbers are not surprising but impressive nonetheless.
  • UNC ain't deep - McAdoo is like Austin Rivers without the made shots or good decisions, Hairston has struggled mightily in ACC play and Stillman White and Desmond Hubert look like marginal ACC talent. There's your bench, Carolina. Last year a great deal was made about the lack of depth in Carolina's frontcourt, with essentially Justin Knox as the only backup. Well, this year it's even thinner (due to Mcadoo's unforseen struggles) and strangely no one is talking about it. Carolina has no reliable back up point guard and no reliable back up post players. Foul trouble could doom this team at the end of the year or really hamper their ability to play defense down the stretch of coming games.
  • Expect nothing different on March 3 - It will be Duke's threes against Carolina's twos (or Duke's backcourt versus Carolina's front court). Only the Devil's 3-point flurry at game's end managed to bring their 3-point % up to their season average, so there's room for improvement there. Carolina ate Duke alive in the paint, but only outrebounded Duke by 7 (their average rebounding margin is +11) so there's room for improvement there too. Duke can't defend the rim and Carolina can't defend the three. That means another high scoring close game is likely in store.

So, the last 76 games between these two teams have been decided by a collective total of 2 points ( as Duke inched further ahead on Wednesday) and Coach K ( I believe) is now 39-38 against UNC in his career. It just doesn't get any better than this, you guys. And, even though Duke has taken 5 out of the last six, the one thing you know is that there will always be a reckoning. Will that come on March 3rd ? Stay tuned...