Duke-North Carolina games are marquee attractions no matter how the teams are performing coming into them. Each season, it’s a good bet the rivalry will provide two of college basketball’s most intriguing matchups before the NCAA tournament. More often than not, the meetings offer the added benefit of bringing together two teams in the running for the ACC championship that belong on the short list of Final Four contenders. Entering Thursday night’s bout in the Dean Smith Center, both the No. 9 Blue Devils and the No. 21 Tar Heels were trying to shake rocky stretches of play, with the former falling at St. John’s on Saturday and the latter having dropped three of four. North Carolina recovered from a double-digit first-half deficit to beat Duke 82-78 and improve to 18-7 (7-5 ACC). Here are three thoughts on what unfolded in Chapel Hill:
Bring on Round 2
Expectations for Duke-Carolina are never not high, but tonight’s game met them. A collision between the two top offenses in the ACC, fueled by likely all-conference honorees and projected NBA draft picks, produced a predictable result: lots of points. As the Blue Devils and Tar Heels traded big basket after big basket in the first half, it was clear neither team had a sound plan to halt the opponent’s offensive onslaught. By the end of the first 20 minutes, Duke and North Carolina had combined for 89 points, with each ringing up at least 1.3 points per possession, shooting at least 43% from three-point range and committing only four total turnovers. Neither the Blue Devils nor the Tar Heels scored as efficiently after the break, but that won’t diminish the anticipation of the return game in Durham on March 3. Plus, by that point, with the start of the conference tournament less than a week away and teams jockeying for favorable NCAA tournament seeds, Duke and North Carolina will have an opportunity to notch a late victory that should carry a lot of weight with the selection committee to help offset whatever losses they take in league matchups over the coming weeks.
Kenny Williams is just fine
North Carolina had a Kenny Williams problem. During an 11-game stretch between the Tar Heels’ shocking home loss to Wofford on Dec. 20 and their win Saturday over Pitt, Williams averaged only 8.5 points on 38.6% shooting—including 25.5% from three-point range—in 30.8 minutes per game. Five days after knocking down six of his nine attempts from beyond the arc and scoring 15 points against the Panthers, Williams went off for 20 points against Duke. Over 32 minutes, Williams drained half of his 12 three-point attempts, three of which came over a 90-second span around the midpoint of the first half. Any remaining doubt over whether Williams had snapped his shooting slump evaporated Thursday, an encouraging development for a team that had connected on only 34.9% of its long-range attempts against ACC competition, which ranked ninth in the league. In junior big man Luke Maye, senior guard Joel Berry II and graduate transfer wing Cameron Johnson, North Carolina has enough capable perimeter shooters to sustain a quality offense even if Williams’s shots aren’t falling (particularly if it gives the ball away only twice, as it did against the Blue Devils). When Williams is shooting like he did against Duke, there are few teams in the country, and possibly none in the ACC other than Virginia, who can consistently get stops against the Tar Heels.
The state of Duke’s defense
The Blue Devils will face questions about their defense for the rest of the season, none of which were answered when they yielded 82 points in 65 possessions (1.26 PPP) against North Carolina and allowed it to rebound 42.6% of its missed shots. They gave up at least 1.19 points per possession in three of their four losses (Boston College, North Carolina State and St. John’s) before Thursday, and they ranked 69th in Division I in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency. Optimists will point to 2015, when Duke stifled its tourney opponents en route to a national championship after entering the Big Dance ranked 37th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. It’s plain the Blue Devils have a lot of room to improve on that end of the floor, but there’s no obvious way for them to make that improvement between now and Selection Sunday. Duke is atypically young and short on defensive difference-makers other than freshman big man Wendell Carter Jr. Plus, other recent Duke teams with shoddy defenses and high-octane offenses suffered early-round exits at the hands of mid-majors (2013-14, No. 14 seed Mercer; 2011-12, No. 15 seed Lehigh). The good news for the Blue Devils is they won’t face an offense as potent as North Carolina’s (15th in adjusted offensive efficiency heading into Thursday) before the NCAAs. Duke can gain confidence by locking down more limited opponents during the rest of ACC play. Whether the Blue Devils can make enough adjustments to mount a deep run in March is another matter entirely.