North Carolina entered Sunday’s matchup with Pittsburgh having won just one of its previous three games: a come-from-behind 68–65 victory over hapless Boston College. To head coach Roy Williams, the Tar Heels had looked little like a top-10 team in the thick of ACC play.
But an 85-64 thumping of the Panthers, in which UNC shot a season-high 59.3% from the field, was a welcome sight for the Hall of Fame coach. “We played better than we’d played recently,” Williams told reporters this week. “It’s that time of year where you’d better be playing well, or you’re going to get beat.”
North Carolina's return to form has come just in time for a key point in its season: Its first matchup of the year with archrival Duke on Wednesday at the Dean E. Smith Center. While Carolina, the preseason No. 1 team in the AP poll, is back to No. 5 this week, the Blue Devils are also enjoying a renaissance. After dropping out of the AP top 25 earlier this month for the first time since 2007, the defending national champions come to Chapel Hill having won four straight games, and are now ranked No. 20. Moreover, the loss of senior forward Amile Jefferson, who had been averaging 11.4 points and 10.3 rebounds per game, to a foot injury in December severely limited Duke’s front line. Jefferson will not play against the Tar Heels and has no set date for a return.
Even without Jefferson, the Blue Devils managed to beat two top-15 teams last week (then-No. 13 Louisville and then-No. 7 Virginia) in Durham. After starting 4-4 in in league play to fall four games behind UNC, Duke now trails the Tar Heels by just two games in the ACC standings, and will get another crack at North Carolina at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 5.
Storylines to watch
Duke’s rookies. Since Jefferson’s injury, freshmen Brandon Ingram, Luke Kennard and Derryck Thornton have stepped up in Duke’s rotation. The Blue Devils’ six active freshmen have played 2,244 total minutes this season—eighth-most among major conference teams—and Ingram, Kennard and Thornton have combined for 37.3 points per game. (One newcomer who hasn't been much of a factor is 6'10" Chase Jeter, a McDonald's All-American last year who has scored just 34 points all season and hasn't played more than eight minutes in any ACC game.)
Keep an eye on Ingram’s reception in the Dean Dome. The former five-star recruit from Kinston, N.C., famously spurned UNC to sign with Duke last April, so don’t expect him to get a warm welcome from Tar Heel fans. But those same fans had better hope Williams’s plan to deploy 6'10" forward Brice Johnson on Ingram works. The 6’7’’ phenom is averaging 17.2 points and 6.7 boards per game, and his six double-doubles lead all ACC freshmen.
Cleaning the glass. North Carolina big men Johnson, Kennedy Meeks (6'10") and Isaiah Hicks (6'9") have turned North Carolina into a rebounding force this season. Johnson (10.0 rebounds per game) and the Tar Heels rank second in the ACC in rebounding margin (+7.4) while grabbing a league-leading 40.4 boards per game. Duke, meanwhile, ranks ninth in the league in rebounding margin (+2.9). The Tar Heels’ edge is even more glaring on the offensive end, where they lead the ACC in offensive rebounding percentage (37.1).
However, UNC has been prone to surrendering offensive rebounds as well. In Sunday's win over Pitt, the Panthers grabbed the board on 19 of their 42 missed shots, and Texas got 16 of its 33 misses in a December upset of the Heels.
Without Jefferson, Duke will rely primarily on 6'11" senior Marshall Plumlee (8.4 boards per game) to battle Carolina on the backboards. If the Blue Devils can’t control the glass, the game could get ugly: They have been outrebounded by an average of 6.3 boards in their six losses.
Tale of turnovers. If there’s one thing both North Carolina and Duke do well, it’s take care of the basketball. The Tar Heels average just 10.96 turnovers per game—the lowest of any UNC team since 1981–82, when they won the national title—while the Blue Devils average just 10.2 miscues. It’s no surprise that Duke (No. 2) and North Carolina (No. 5) both rank in kenpom.com’s top five teams in adjusted offensive efficiency. The difference? The Tar Heels force more mistakes, ranking 106th in turnover percentage defense, per kenpom.com, with Duke ranks 256th.
Grayson Allen vs. Marcus Paige. Allen has emerged as a go-to playmaker for Duke after serving as a bit player during last season’s championship run. The sophomore guard averages 16.2 more points per game this season than last, pacing the Blue Devils with a 20.6 scoring average. But Allen has also proven clutch: His (controversial) off-balance shot as time expired gave Duke a 63–62 win over Virginia last Saturday.
But North Carolina has its own backcourt star in Marcus Paige. An All-ACC choice each of the past two years, as a senior Paige is the Tar Heels’ second-leading scorer (13.0 points per game), and he has hit double-figures in four of his last five games after enduring a horrific midseason shooting slump. Both Allen and Paige are proven crunch time scorers, so whichever shooter has the better day might determine the outcome in Chapel Hill.
How much has Jefferson’s absence impacted Duke’s offense? Since his injury in December, 35.4% of the Blue Devils’ scoring has come on three-pointers. Threes accounted for only 27.5% with Jefferson in the lineup.