Here are five quick thoughts on No. 6 North Carolina's 88-70 win over No. 4 Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Saturday evening, one that saw the Tar Heels clinch the ACC's regular season title.
1. Duke struggled, but North Carolina thrived: Duke's inability to knock down a jumper played a large role in its loss, but don't be fooled: North Carolina played great. Tyler Zeller and John Henson combined for 32 points and 20 boards, shooting 14-of-20 from the floor, while James Michael McAdoo came off the bench to score six points, grab three offensive rebounds and throw down a statement dunk off a missed shot. Harrison Barnes didn't have his most efficient offensive game, but he and Reggie Bullock provided UNC with balanced scoring on the perimeter. When North Carolina has all four of those guys playing well, they are a very, very good team.
But the key to getting those four players going is Kendall Marshall.
It's been said before and it will be said many, many more times before the season is over, but he is the engine that makes the high-powered Tar Heel offense go. He's their quarterback, throwing the ball all over the floor to spark UNC's break. The difference in this game is that, in addition to the 10 assists that he had, Marshall also finished with 20 points. He only averages 6.8 ppg and has now scored in double figures just five times this season, but what he has proved is that he can be a weapon when he needs to be. It's not going to be that often that he is called upon for points -- not when he shares the court with at least four future NBA draft picks -- but for Roy Williams to know that he has a point guard that can a) knock down an open three pointer when defenses collapse on the bigs and b) create his own shot off the dribble when he has to is a valuable thing for the Heels heading into tournament play.
2. If you live by the three, you die by the three: Duke is still a team that is good enough to make the Final Four. Seeing them get dismantled at home by North Carolina doesn't change that fact. The Blue Devils have size, they have a number of scoring options on their perimeter and they can flat-out shoot the ball. When those 3-pointers are going down, the Blue Devils are dangerous. That seems like an obvious statement, but the issue is that Duke relies heavily on the three because they have to. This is a flawed basketball team, but that isn't a secret. Its perimeter defense is questionable at best, the Plumlees are as enigmatic as they are athletic and there really isn't a point guard on its roster.
Duke is not as reliant on the three-ball as it has been in past seasons, but it is also rare that Coach K puts a team on the floor with so many question marks. To steal another colloquialism, the three-ball is the great equalizer for the Blue Devils. When they are making threes, the defensive lapses can be accounted for. Think about it like this: North Carolina jumped out to a 22-5 lead on the Blue Devils on Saturday. During that stretch, Duke missed all seven of the 3-pointers it shot and missed another six jumpers from inside the arc. If the Blue Devils knock down two or three of those shots, then it is a different story. A 10-point deficit is much less daunting than a 17-point deficit eight minutes into the game.
3. Is Tyler Zeller the ACC Player of the Year?: Here's something to think about: Kendall Marshall is North Carolina's most valuable player and the most likely to be named a First Team All-America selection, but will he get bumped out of the ACC Player of the Year race by teammate Tyler Zeller? Zeller averages 16.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg and 1.5 bpg despite playing along side John Henson, a double-double machine and the ACC's resident shot-blocking extraordinaire. He's one of the best low-post scorers in the country. If Marshall is UNC's quarterback, than Zeller is its wide receiver; no big man in the country is as adept at running the floor and getting points in transition as Zeller. This wouldn't be an isolated incident for the Tar Heels, either. In 2009, Ty Lawson was named ACC Player of the Year while Tyler Hansbrough was named First-Team All-America.
4. Challenging yourself is a good thing: As of Saturday, Duke is probably no longer on the No. 1 seed line. But it is still in the mix, and while the product on the court may make us question that standing, the fact of the matter is that Duke has a very strong profile. The Blue Devils beat both Michigan State and Kansas, two other teams in the mix for a No. 1 seed, in November. They also beat Michigan, who is currently tied for second place in the strongest conference in the country. Belmont and Davidson won the Atlantic Sun and the Southern conferences, respectively. Penn is a win at Princeton away from owning a share of the Ivy's regular season title. Tennessee is currently third in the SEC. Colorado State and Washington are both in the mix for an at-large bid. As Duke is proving, it pays off to put together a strong non-conference schedule.
5. This is why North Carolina is going to be scary this month: Let's imagine, for a second, that the Tar Heels do end up as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Who wants them in their bracket? North Carolina has as much talent on its roster as any team in the country. Sure, it may lack some perimeter shooting, and yes, without Dexter Strickland it loses its best perimeter defender. But this is still a group with size and athleticism, lottery picks all over the roster and a floor general that is capable of turning the offense into a juggernaut. After Kentucky beat North Carolina back in November, the talk was about how great a rematch in the NCAA Tournament would be.
What happens if that rematch takes place in the Elite Eight? It's unlikely, but its possible.