Mail: Previewing Duke-UNC; Purdue's path to the Final Four; more

1:35 | College Basketball
UNC-Duke rivalry thrives in time of simmering feuds
Wednesday February 8th, 2017

We begin today’s Twitterbag with a fairly obvious question. I got lots of these in my mentions during my weekly Twenty for Tuesday chat:

Duke or UNC? — Nick Brezinski (@nickbrezinski)

Who’s your pick for Duke-UNC on Thursday? — Dele Alli Fan Page (@zantrum17)

Who you got Thursday? I don’t think Duke can handle UNC on the interior. — Scott Whitlow (@dswhitlow)

That’s right, the best rivalry in all of sports returns. I’ve always loved the symmetry that the first Duke-North Carolina game occurs just a few days after the Super Bowl. It accentuates the pivot I addressed in Hoop Thoughts this week moving the world from football to college hoops. So let’s kick off—er, tip off the game with my breakdown and prediction.

Four Reasons Why Duke Will Win

1. The Blue Devils are whole again. There have been very few games in which Duke, everyone’s preseason No. 1 squad, was at full strength both on the floor and on the bench. When the season began, three of the team’s four heralded freshmen (Harry Giles, Jayson Tatum and Marques Bolden) were injured. Just when that resolved itself in December, Grayson Allen got suspended for a game. Just when Allen was getting back, Mike Krzyzewski had to step aside to have back surgery. Right around the same time, senior center Amile Jefferson reinjured his foot. Jefferson returned two weeks ago, but it has taken some time for him to regain his form. And last Saturday, Krzyzewski was back on the bench for a home win over Pittsburgh. Duke has had its struggles this season, but the Blue Devils have never really had the chance to be a team in full. Here’s their chance.

2. Grayson Allen is playing like Grayson Allen again. This is the part of the story I think people missed. Allen contemplated turning pro after a terrific sophomore season, but he returned to school and was a preseason favorite to be national player of the year. He played poorly early on, and then he injured his toe, which kept him out of practice for two weeks. The pressure he was putting on himself to live up to the preseason hype and justify his decision to return was a big factor in his meltdown against Elon. It hasn’t been an easy time, but over the last three games, Allen is averaging 20.3 points on 44.8% three-point shooting. This is especially important because he is the closest thing this team has to a point guard. Not only does he have to be able to score, he has to be able to lead.

3. The freshmen are starting to live up to their billing. Highly ranked freshmen forward Giles and Tatum were the source of much of Duke’s preseason expectations. Recently, however, Duke is playing better because it went back to relying on its upperclassmen. Still, while Giles, who has gone through three knee surgeries in the last two years, will not be a featured performer, he has looked stronger and more confident recently. And while Tatum tried to carry the offense for a while, he has morphed into a more complementary role as an inside scorer and rebounder. Those two guys don’t have to be Duke’s best players, they just have to make enough plays to push the team across the finish line.

4. The game is in Cameron, and this is Duke-North Carolina. Yes, the Tar Heels have been the more impressive team this season, but that homecourt advantage is huge. The one rule in this rivalry seems to be that what ends up happening is the opposite of what’s supposed to happen.

Lance King/Getty

Four Reasons why North Carolina Will Win

1. The Tar Heels have a huge advantage at point guard. It’s hard not to have an advantage when the opponent doesn’t even have someone playing this position (at least not in a traditional sense), but Joel Berry II has been one of the best point guards in the country this season. He is averaging 14.9 points, 4.0 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game while making 42.1% from three. When Duke gets in a tight spot at the end of a shot clock, it doesn’t always know where to turn. For North Carolina, there is never a question.

2. North Carolina should dominate the glass. This has been a staple of Roy Williams’s teams the last couple of years, but this year’s might be one of his best. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebound percentage and rebound margin (plus 13.5). They have one player, 6' 10" senior Kennedy Meeks, who ranks fourth nationally in offensive rebound percentage, and another, 6' 11" freshman Tony Bradley, who would be first if he played the minimum 40 percent minutes to qualify for kenpom.com’s rankings. Not only does that mean North Carolina can get a lot of rebounds, but the superior frontcourt depth means the Heels have lots more fouls to give in the paint. That will be especially true if 6' 6" junior swingman Theo Pinson, a versatile defender who has missed the last three games with an ankle injury, is back in the lineup.

3. Duke is having a hard time guarding the dribbler. This has not been an unusual problem for Duke. It’s why Mike Krzyzewski has dabbled in some zone in recent years, including when the team won the NCAA championship in 2015. North Carolina is well equipped to take advantage, not just with Berry and his backcourtmate, Nate Britt, but especially with Justin Jackson, a 6' 8" slasher who has been lighting it up this season to the tune of 18.6 points per game. It’s going to be a lot of fun watching Jackson and Duke sophomore guard Luke Kennard go bucket for bucket. The difference is Jackson is the better driver.

4. The game is in Cameron, and this is Duke-North Carolina. It is a huge game in one of the great venues in all of sports. Of course the home team is supposed to win. But the one rule in this rivalry seems to be that what ends up happening is the opposite of what’s supposed to happen.

Final Prediction

North Carolina 79, Duke 77. The Heels get just enough offensive rebounds to pull it out. Can’t wait to watch!

Is the relatively short three-point line why small ball is so prevalent? Or simply the lack of enough talented bigs? — William Haas (@wahaas57)

Well, I certainly don’t think it’s because players are getting smaller. What William is noticing is definitely happening, and the reason for it is simple: Trickle-down basketball. A trend starts in the NBA, or just as often in international play, and it trickles down to college hoops, where the players’ foremost objective is, you guessed it, to play in the NBA. What, you thought their primary motivation is to win one for Ole State U?

Ten years ago, you hardly ever saw a ball screen in a college basketball game. Now, there are three or four every possession. I have been waiting for a counterrevolution, since that is how trends in sports usually go, and I think we are starting to see signs. I was interested to learn in the recent story that my colleague Lee Jenkins wrote about UCLA that the Bruins, who are the best offensive team in the country, are ranked dead last in the Pac 12 in number of pick-and-roll attempts per game (9.5). That is a direct influence of the Golden State Warriors, who are running the fewest pick-and-roll plays in the NBA. The San Antonio Spurs also running fewer pick-and-rolls and more motion offense sets.

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There are four reasons why I think college coaches will move in this direction. First, the rules changes and emphasis on freedom of movement has obviated the need for ball screens. Second, the downside to the pick-and-roll is that it brings two players, including one defender, towards the dribbler, crowding his space. Third, when everyone is doing something, it becomes less effective. Fourth, when the two best franchises in the NBA are doing something, it’s only a matter of time before it trickles down.

Is Kentucky now trying too hard to get Bam Adebayo involved in the offense at the expense of a faster pace? — CEO (@TheCEO10)

If getting Bam Adebayo more touches means slowing down the pace, then maybe Kentucky should slow down the pace. The Wildcats have been mortal the last couple of weeks, largely because of their youth (they are the eighth-youngest team in the country, per kenpom.com), partly because of illnesses and injuries (in particular to point guard De’Aaron Fox, the guy who propels the running game), and somewhat because they are in the teeth of conference play and opponents know how to scout them. There’s also their poor defense, which allowed Florida to hang 88 points on them in Saturday’s embarrassing loss.

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The pace tends to slow down in the NCAA tournament. If a team can’t execute halfcourt offense, it can’t win big games. Adebayo isn’t the most skilled big man around—and his 60.5 percentage from the free throw line scares me—but it’s a lot easier to run effective halfcourt sets if you can draw double teams in the post. So I say slow it down just a little and let the big dog eat.

Joe Robbins/Getty

Will Purdue finally make it to the Final Four this year? — Ryan Laidig (@RyanLaidig)

I can’t say for sure, of course, that they will, but I can say that they can. Sophomore big man Caleb Swanigan is having a season for the ages, and the Boilermakers are a much better offensive team than they’ve been in the past. Junior forward Vincent Edwards had a rough start to the season, but he has played quite well the last six weeks. I love their long-range shooting (Purdue is third-best three-point shooting team in the country at 42.3%) and the emergence of freshman guard Carsen Edwards as a big-time playmaker.

I chose to answer this question because of the curious (and if you’re a Purdue fan, the curiously sad) history of this proud program. Ryan’s question suggests the Boilermakers have never made the Final Four, but that is not true. The Rick Mount-led 1968–69 team lost to Lew Alcindor’s UCLA squad in the championship game, and the 1979–80 team lost in the national semifinals to UCLA as well.

That brings us to the curious case of Lee Rose. He took UNC Charlotte to the 1977 Final Four, but he only had three years of head coaching experience when he came to Purdue in 1978. After bringing the Boilermakers to the Final Four in 1980, Rose unexpectedly left for South Florida. Rose was very good friends with then USF athletic director Dick Bowers. Though he knew he was in a good situation at Purdue, Rose hated the cold weather, and he wasn’t fond of the Big Ten’s rough style of play. Since his best player, Joe Bary Carroll, was graduating, he figured it was a good time to get out of dodge.

Rose was followed by Gene Keady who, although unquestionably one of the finest coaches in history, spent 25 years as the head coach at Purdue but was unable to get the Boilermakers back to the Final Four. In that span, Purdue fans had to watch their main rival, Indiana, win two national championships and in-state mid-major, Butler, reached two Final Fours. Purdue lost in two Elite Eights, but that’s it. So while it hasn’t technically been forever since Purdue made the Final Four, you can understand why Purdue fans feel that way. It would be a great story if Matt Painter’s bunch was finally able to break back through.

Thoughts on Lonzo Ball vs. Markelle Fultz last weekend? — Shaun Ostrowsky (@sostrowsky)

They are who we thought they were. Lonzo Ball had 22 points on 7 for 12 shooting to go along with six rebounds, five assists and four steals. Markelle Fultz had 25 points on 9 for 19 shooting to go along with six rebounds, five assists and three steals. Least surprising of all, UCLA won easily, 107–66.

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Needless to say, it has been a rough season for Washington, which fell to 2–9 in the Pac 12 (9–14 overall). But unlike last year with Ben Simmons, the Huskies’ are struggling despite Fultz’s brilliance, not because of it. I know the whole awards season can get kind of silly, but to the extent that we are composing our All-America teams and player of the year lists, I think it is unfair to punish Fultz for his team’s struggles. You could make a pretty convincing case that he is the best player in college basketball. He will almost certainly be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. All-America and POY are individual awards, but too often we reward and punish players on the basis of how their teams perform.

Who comes out of the first Ivy League tournament this year? — Joshua Lafazan (@JoshuaLafazan)

I’d be guessing, obviously, but I was happy for the reminder that this is going to happen. The Ivy was the last conference to hold off on a postseason tournament, and while a lot of old-school types thought this was cool, I argued over the years that the Ivy should join the fun. There are lots of ways to do this and still make the regular season meaningful—rewarding the top finishers with first-round byes or the ability to host games—but the Ivy came up with the perfect answer by making this a four-team tournament. Even better, it is going to be played at The Palestra. It can’t get any better than that.

As for who wins it, I haven’t been able to lock in on this league too much, but it is pretty clear that Princeton, Yale, Harvard and Columbia are going to going to be the four invitees. Harvard lost at home to Princeton by one point on Saturday, but at the end of the day, I still think the Crimson, spurred by their dynamic backcourt of 6-foot senior Siyani Chambers and 6-foot freshman Bryce Aiken, are best equipped to get hot at the right time. Either way, I’ll be watching, and so should you.

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How do you think the committee views controversial wins/losses like VCU/St. Bonaventure, and how should they view them? — George Templeton (@temptherat)

This is a slippery slope that the committee does not generally want to approach. Personnel issues are one thing, but when we start getting into blown calls and controversial endings, then we are asking the committee to divine too much. Yes, St. Bonaventure got robbed by an unwarranted technical, but the Bonnies still had a chance to win the game in overtime and didn’t. I’ve always said that teams on the bubble forfeit their right to complain about being left out because they’re the ones that put the game in the hands of the refs, so to speak. If St. Bonaventure fails to make the NCAA tournament, it won’t because of bad luck or bad officiating. It will be because it didn’t win enough games.

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