Here are some key factors that will decide whether Duke or North Carolina prevails on Thursday night.
*Can Duke’s guards stay in front of ball-handlers?
The fulcrum of Duke’s defensive woes. Opposing guards have feasted on the Blue Devils this season — Shamorie Ponds is the latest example — and the Trevon Duval-Grayson Allen pairing has failed to offer much resistance against dynamic scorers. In losses to St. John’s and Boston College, Duke allowed a combined 63 points to Ponds and Jerome Robinson.
Another: Duval cheats under a ball screen, and Ponds quickly jacks a 3:
Despite his efficiency downturn, Joel Berry is one of the most willing off-the-dribble 3-point shooters in the country. If Duke plays man-to-man (a big if, which we’ll touch on), Berry could slice the Blue Devils apart.
Allen hasn’t been that much better than Duval defensively, but fortunately for Duke, North Carolina lacks a reliable creator outside of Berry. And as mentioned earlier, Berry has been inconsistent. He’s shooting a career-worst 39 percent from the floor and is making a modest 36 percent of his 3s.
If Duval lazes through ball screens and Berry can’t hit open shots, Duke will be fine. Even open off-the-bounce 3s aren’t easy, and a shooter lacking conviction probably won’t make them. But Berry is a generally confident dude who has perked up as of late — he scored 27 points against Clemson and is 7-for-15 from 3 in his last two games. This is a prime opportunity for the North Carolina captain to regain his 2016-17 form.
Kenny Williams is a great spot-up shooter, but he won’t give the Tar Heels much off the dribble. Theo Pinson can create, but he’s not the multi-dimensional threat Berry is.
Duval has the athleticism and lateral agility to frustrate Berry. This is a mindset/tactical issue, not a physical one. Lately, Duke has started games in man before flipping to zone. Mike Krzyzewski would rather play man – we have decades to prove it – but doing so will require forcing Berry to sweat a little for his buckets.
Keep an eye on this in the first 10 minutes.
*To what extent can Marvin Bagley exploit his size advantage?
North Carolina is playing small this season, mostly out of necessity. Roy Williams starts his five best guys, which means Luke Maye plays center and Cam Johnson plays power forward.
Maye and Johnson are both offensive minded, and that duo will have to contain the jumbo package that is Marvin Bagley and Wendell Carter. Bagley is smaller than Carter, so Williams will likely slot Johnson on him – but regardless of the assignments, both of these are mismatches. Bagley and Carter combine to average 35.8 points and 20.8 rebounds per game and have learned each other’s tendencies. They’re the scariest frontcourt in the country -- it’s not close.
With that said, North Carolina ranks 15th in opposing 2-point percentage and 313th in opposing 3-point percentage. Scheme has a lot to do with that – Williams knows his front line is undersized, and he won’t hesitate to double the post. That results in open 3s — overhelping has been a massive problem for UNC all year.
Regardless, the Tar Heels are going to have to send extra help towards and Bagley and Carter. The key is sending the right kind of help. In other words, don’t help off of Allen or Gary Trent; help off of Duval, who’s shooting 27 percent from 3. Or if Coach K plays Javin DeLaurier at the three, it’s safe to leave him alone.
This requires constant communication and attention to detail. If Bagley and Carter dominate, Williams will have to use Sterling Manley or Garrison Brooks more than he’d like – and that might suffocate the offense.
It would obviously be nice for Duke if Allen snapped out of his funk. But if Bagley eats this favorable matchup alive, Allen’s final stat line won’t matter as much.
*Will Maye force Duke to abandon the zone?
Duke has fared better in zone than man this year, though neither look has exactly qualified as ‘lockdown.’ But the key to beating the Blue Devils’ 2-3 is having a guy in the high post who makes good decisions and is a threat to shoot from the elbows.
Maye checks every box. He whips canny passes all over the court; the junior is averaging 2.4 assists, an elite mark for a big man. His biggest strength is his all-around offensive polish. Maye is shooting 49 percent of the 3, but he can inflict damage from anywhere. And the 2-3 zone – particularly, Duke’s version of the 2-3 zone – is extremely vulnerable in the high post.
Virginia forward Isaiah Wilkins is a really nice player, and in the Cavaliers’ win against Duke, he caught the ball at elbow with nobody in his zip code time and time again. Wilkins is a rock-solid screen-setter and an ace defender; playmaking isn’t his forte. He didn't capitalize often enough, and the Blue Devils stormed back in the second half.
Allow Maye to catch at the elbow without pressure, and he can shoot, drive to the hole with a head of steam, or kick to an open 3-point shooter. If Maye plays well, he’ll serve as an inverse zone-buster – someone who does it from the paint rather than the 3-point line.
*What can Manley and Brooks give North Carolina? Can the Tar Heels rebound without them?
The small-ball look has helped juice North Carolina’s offense, but let’s just call it what it is — the Tar Heels’ starting lineup matches up horribly against the Duke front line.
You can see why Williams has used Manley and Brooks less and less. Manley has an offensive rating of 107.5; Brooks’ sits at 103.7. Johnson and Kenny Williams — the two guys playing more as a result of the philosophy shift — both have offensive ratings above 122. Simply put, the Tar Heels are scoring a lot more without a true center on the floor.
However frustrating, Manley has put up numbers – he’s averaging 20 points and 14 rebounds per 40 minutes. He fouls too much — he averages 5.1 of them per 40 — and tires quickly. But he’s big, and has good offensive instincts. Manley’s flaws are obvious. But he’s a pivotal player for North Carolina – especially in this matchup. Show out on Thursday, and perhaps he could take on a bigger role down the stretch. The idealized version of Manley would do wonders for North Carolina’s lineup versatility.
In order for the Tar Heels to win, either Manley or Brooks will have to give them quality minutes – particularly on the defensive end. Duke leads the country in offensive rebounding rate; it could go nuts without a true opposing center out there. Keep an eye on these two.
Final score prediction: Duke 88, North Carolina 84
Ultimately, UNC may not have enough answers for Carter and Bagley, and the offense hasn't been dynamic enough to fully exploit Duke's leaky defense.