So this is it for North Carolina. If the formula that produced a five-game winning streak is powerful stuff, everyone should know Wednesday night. If the whole thing bubbled up thanks to a healthy dollop of middling teams, we'll find out.
Here comes Duke, and here comes the beginning or the end of the discussion about who the Tar Heels really are.
The conversation has been a regular part of the college basketball season. A loss at home to Belmont followed by a win over then-No. 3 Louisville. A loss at UAB followed by a win at then-No. 1 Michigan State. A win over Kentucky followed by three straight losses to start ACC play. Since their 1-4 start in league play, however, the Tar Heels have won five straight against Clemson, Georgia Tech, N.C. State, Maryland and Notre Dame. If there’s a neat distillation of North Carolina’s resuscitation, it’s that more reliable, active on-the-ball defense has induced opponents to shoot at a less than deadly rate. North Carolina is only allowing its opponents to shoot 30.9 percent from three, second in the ACC behind Wake Forest. Sometimes that active defense leads to turnovers, a lot of times it leads to stops and all of it leads to easier offense on the other end.
Here are the challenges Duke presents to that: The Blue Devils don’t turn it over much, even in losses, and they’ve endured just two inefficient shooting nights in their run through the ACC schedule thus far. The Blue Devils are shooting 42 percent from three-point range, best in the nation, and they're also top 25 in attempts from beyond the arc.
In other words, what North Carolina has done to revive its season can be thwarted precisely by the strengths of its archrival. With a home game against Pittsburgh lurking Saturday, it’s a week that stamps the Tar Heels as viable or not, but everything starts with Duke.
When the Blue Devils have lost, the reasons are not revelatory: They surrender a lot inside the three-point line and get beat up more than usual on the offensive glass. In Duke’s five losses, opponents shot 52.4 percent on two-point field goal attempts. And in that quintet of defeats, the opponent’s offensive rebound percentage was at least 30.8 percent and as high as 44.4 percent – close to or well exceeding the season-long average of 29.8 percent for Blue Devils foes.
What’s more, Duke’s turnover numbers in its losses would be figures any coach would take over the course of a season, win or lose: 10, 11, six, five and eight. There’s no way to spark a detonation that disintegrates Duke in a flash; it’s bit-by-bit erosion that gives teams a chance.
The Tar Heels benefited from high rates of turnovers in their last two wins against Maryland and Notre Dame. But in the first three games of the current win streak, the opponents’ turnover percentages – the rate of possessions that ended in a miscue -- were, respectively, 16.7, 14.5 and 15.6.
All of those numbers were lower than the lowest rate – 16.9 percent – in a three-game losing streak early in ACC play. Forcing turnovers helps, but it’s not necessarily determined the Tar Heels’ fortunes either way.
What has is keeping the other team’s offensive efficiency at a manageable level via a much more solid, cohesive half-court defense. In North Carolina’s 1-4 start to ACC play, its lowest points per possession allowed was .97 and four of five teams posted effective field goal rates of 47 percent or higher. In the five-game win streak, opponent points per possession has eclipsed .97 just once and the effective field goal percentage has been at 45.5 percent or less in four of the five games. Only Notre Dame last Saturday was better, at 50.9 percent, thanks mainly to an early flume of three-pointers that dried up.
Meanwhile, the Tar Heels’ offensive rebound rate for the year sits at 38.4 percent, has not dipped below 29 percent during ACC play and has been 31.4 percent or higher during the five-game revival. On the season, North Carolina's 335 offensive rebounds are 16th in the country.
Those are the outcomes. The context is a group of teams that cannot threaten North Carolina like Duke can.
“We dug ourselves in a hole, but we have a big week and another chance to go out there and continue on the right direction,” Tar Heels forward James Michael McAdoo said last weekend. “We had to make some changes no matter who we played. If we wanted to be successful, we couldn’t do what we were doing in those games that we did lose.”
Confidence, and a reference point for success, can go a long way. The Tar Heels are built in ways to attack the Blue Devils’ vulnerabilities. They nare now a more resolute defensive team that can produce easy scores via turnovers, stops or work on the offensive glass. Duke, meanwhile, is capable of solving any defense (ask Syracuse) and doesn’t often make the mistakes that can turbo-boost North Carolina into a rhythm. As usual, if Duke can hit consistently from three-point range, the game will tip in its direction. All season, everyone has been looking for validation about the Tar Heels one way or another – including the Tar Heels themselves. One game against their archrival should provide it.