Duke and North Carolina are both ranked in the latest AP Top 25, but it’s been an up-and-down season for both programs.Part of the reason for that? Brand new identities. Both teams underwent personnel overhauls during the offseason. Duke starts four freshmen alongside Grayson Allen; Joel Berry and Theo Pinson are the only returning starters from North Carolina’s championship squad. Each program brought in talented newcomers or gave already solid contributors more significant roles.
But the puzzle pieces fit differently than they did last season for both teams. Strangely enough, they fit in ways that fans of both programs will quickly recognize.
Here’s what we mean.
*The 2017-18 Duke offense is strikingly similar to 2016-17 UNC offense
Last year, North Carolina’s third and fourth big men (Tony Bradley and Luke Maye) could have formed a top-three frontcourt in college basketball had they been starters. Maye has blossomed into a star as a junior, while Bradley was a per-minute monster as a freshman and was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft.
That duo played behind Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks, a couple of loads who possessed sneaky touch around the rim. Justin Jackson and Joel Berry were the Tar Heels’ best players last season, but the Meeks-Hicks-Bradley-Maye quartet shaped North Carolina’s identity. Having an off shooting night? No problem — the Tar Heels collected 41.3 percent of their own misses, which led the nation. That’s why North Carolina was more consistently dominant than anyone — either outside shots were falling, or the behemoths were eating. Both methods generated points.
Duke, which has typically played small over the last decade, profiles a lot like North Carolina last season thanks to Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter. The Blue Devils retrieve a nearly identical 41.2 percent of their own clanks, which leads the country. Carter and Bagley each rebound 14 percent of Duke’s misses when they’re on the floor — a monster individual clip.
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You see the similarities in the lineup choices, too. The last few years, the Blue Devils have almost always used a wing at the four — Jayson Tatum, Brandon Ingram and Justise Winslow come to mind. This season, Duke generally uses two true bigs together — Bagley and Javin DeLaurier gobble up 92 percent of Duke’s power forward minutes, per KenPom. In 2016-17, Tatum and Luke Kennard — a natural shooting guard — accounted for 87 percent of Duke’s time at the four. The Blue Devils are scoring at a similar rate, but the way in which they’re doing so is, dare we say… North Carolina-esque?
The Blue Devils have issues, but they mainly lie on the defensive end. Even with Allen’s struggles and Trevon Duval’s inconsistency, Duke ranks second in offense, and its ability to produce second and third cracks at the rim is the biggest reason why.
Duke is a slightly better 3-point shooting team than North Carolina was, but also turns it over a little more. Last season, the Blue Devils only rebounded 32 percent of their own misses and relied heavily on the 3-ball. The 2017-18 approach isn’t always pretty, but it works. We've seen it on the other side of the rivalry.
Mike Krzyzewski’s greatest skill is his adaptability. Of course, it doesn’t take a genius to let physical freaks like Bagley and Carter crash the glass and leave transition defense to the guards. But it’s an interesting style change nonetheless.
*…And the 2017-18 UNC offense is similar to the 2016-17 Duke offense
In Roy Williams’ version of “The Death Lineup,” three guys — Pinson, Cam Johnson and Maye — play up a position. Remind you of anyone? Amile Jefferson was a natural five, but Tatum and Kennard mostly played the four and the three for Duke last season, respectively. Tatum is a natural three; Kennard is a two, though positional distinctions aren’t as important on the wing.
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Still, this represents a style change for both teams. Rivalry hysteria aside, the most interesting part about the Duke-UNC matchup last year was the Tatum vs. Hicks battle. Tatum was a silky wing with a killer straight-line driving game and a sweet outside shot. Hicks was nimble for his size, but would have been better suited banging with centers than chasing stud perimeter players. That said, Hicks also inflicted damage on Tatum, who played bigger than his size but struggled to contain Hicks in the post.
There will be a similar matchup this year, but the jerseys will flip. Johnson and Bagley will likely guard one another (unless Duke goes zone for long stretches). It’s not as much of a contrast as Tatum vs. Hicks; in fact, Bagley is a better lateral athlete than Johnson despite his size advantage. But Bagley isn’t a great tactical defender at this stage, and Johnson is a good 3-point shooter — he made six of them against Clemson.Williams may opt to slot Johnson on the slightly less-threatening Carter, but Carter would have a significant edge in the post, too. If North Carolina has to use Sterling Manley and Garrison Brooks for extended minutes in order to contain Duke’s star-studded front line, its offense could sputter.
North Carolina is shooting 37 percent from 3 – Duke made 38 percent from range last year. The Heels shot 35 percent when they won the national championship, but they’re far more reliant on the 3-ball now than they were then.
We’ll see which school can execute its newfound strategy better. It’s probably fair to say that this season hasn’t gone as well as Williams or Krzyzewski had hoped, even if their teams are both Final Four contenders. But given the drastic stylistic changes, some turbulence was expected. Thursday night could serve as a launching point for the winning team.
As if this rivalry needed any added pressure. Bring on the next chapter.