9:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Duke -9, Over/Under: 167
It’s that time of year again as mortal enemies clash along Tobacco Road, as the Top-Ranked Duke Blue Devils welcome the Eighth-Ranked North Carolina Tar Heels for a crucial ACC clash from Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, North Carolina. While this very much remains the sport’s signature rivalry, this particular meeting is certainly of more importance to North Carolina (20-5, 10-2 in ACC), who would not only further ascend the rankings with a victory, but pull within a virtual tie with Duke for First Place n the Atlantic Coast Conference, not to mention further advance themselves in the eyes of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee. After all, despite playing a typically difficult schedule, the Tar Heels have played reasonably well against ranked competition this season; thus far, they’ve faced eight ranked opponents, amassing a 5-3 record in such contests, including 2-2 versus Top-10 opposition. However, the last time that we saw Roy Williams’ charges meet such a counterpart, it ended rather poor 61-69 performance at home against Virginia last week. Granted, the Cavaliers were smarting coming off a nationally-televised defeat to Duke, while the Heels needed Overtime to escape Miami (FL) the weekend prior (88-85), but it was the fashion in which they suffered defeat that was particularly noteworthy. In a matchup in which you would be hard-pressed to find two more diametrically opposed styles, the hosts succumbed to Virginia’s slow tempo, as the nation’s second-highest scoring team was relegated to a season-low Sixty-One Points on a miserable 35.4% shooting from the field, including just 14-of-35 from inside the arc (40.0%). For a team that has long held the mandate of accumulating as many possessions as possible, this type of contest must have been akin to learning a anew language. This was especially true early, as the home side registered a paltry Twenty-Six Points at Halftime, before finally getting their bearings after intermission. Could you blame the Chapel Hill faithful for snoozing through this one?
Of course, after a performance like that, you could almost guarantee that North Carolina would be very motivated to get back on track against their next opponent, which was precisely what happened when they made the short trip to Winston Salem to face Wake Forest. Williams must have employed a scorched earth philosophy during practice throughout the week, for this 95-57 drubbing was never even remotely close to being competitive. The visiting Tar Heels shot a blistering 62.3% from the field, including a staggering 16-of-25 from beyond the arc (64.0%), assisting on Twenty-One of their Thirty-Eight Field Goals, while overwhelming the Demon Deacons on the defensive end, relinquishing a scant 32.8% shooting overall, and harassing them into Twenty Turnovers. Again, with the visitors racing entering Halftime with a 49-21 lead, this one was never in question, folks. Senior Guard Cameron Johnson (16.3 PTS, 51.7% FG, 47.9% 3FG, 5.4 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.4 STL, 25.2 PER) was damn near perfect with Twenty-Seven Points on 10-of-13 shooting (76.9%), including 7-of-10 from downtown (70.0%), along with Three Rebounds, Assists, and Steals apiece, while fellow Senior Luke Maye (14.5 PTS, 43.7% FG, 32.6% 3FG, 9.6 REB, 2.1 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 18.6 PER) and Freshman Point Guard Coby White (15.7 PTS, 43.6% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 4.3 AST, 1.0 STL, 20.6 PER) each chipped in with Ten Points. As you can imagine, Williams emptied his Bench early, for fourteen different players saw playing time on Saturday, with all but one getting one the scoreboard. From a confidence-building standpoint, this one was fairly important for North Carolina, who are a younger team than they’ve been in the past, while also shifting the focus offensively from years of playing through their lengthy lineage of quality big men, to now showcasing their Backcourt and Wings. The aforementioned Johnson, a former transfer from Pittsburgh, has greatly improved his shooting upon assuming a larger role in the Offense, while Freshmen such as White and Nassir Little (9.6 PTS, 50.0% FG, 28.9% 3FG, 4.4 REB, 0.8 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, 20.2 PER) have injected some youthful exuberance and athleticism to the rotation. Case in point, a year ago the Heels only shot 35.9% from the perimeter, ranking 116th in the country, but have improved by leaps and bounds in this respect, netting 38.6% of their attempts from three thus far, placing them at 21st in the nation. There is an excellent chance that this could play a large role in their meeting with Duke, who (as we’ll get into more in a bit) this season, haven’t been particularly effective when shooting the Money Ball.
Meanwhile, for the third time this season Duke (23-2, 11-1 in ACC) finds themselves sitting atop the Rankings, as former No. One Tennessee were ran out of Lexington, Kentucky on Saturday Night. The Blue Devils certainly took advantage of the opportunity presented before them, dispatching No. 21 North Carolina State with relative ease in a 94-78 victory. Leading 48-40 at intermission, the Blue Devils slowly pulled away in the Second Half, relying on the exploits of their sensational Freshmen Recruiting Class, led by (presumed No. One Pick in the NBA Draft) Zion Williamson (22.4 PTS, 68.3% FG, 29.2% 3FG, 9.2 REB, 2.3 AST, 2.3 STL, 1.9 BLK, 42.3 PER), and his running mates R.J. Barrett (22.7 PTS, 44.8% FG, 33.5% 3FG, 7.4 REB, 4.0 AST, 0.9 STL, 0.4 BLK, 24.2 PER), Tre Jones (8.7 PTS, 44.3% FG, 27.1% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 5.4 AST, 2.0 STL, 16.9 PER), and Cam Reddish (13.8 PTS, 35.6% FG, 34.0% 3FG, 3.5 REB, 2.2 AST, 2.0 STL, 0.4 BLK, 15.5 PER), who together accounted for Seventy-Seven Points, very nearly outscoring the Wolfpack altogether, while also amassing totals of Twenty-Seven Rebounds, Twenty Assists, and Five Steals. In a game in which both teams shot 50.0% or better from the field, it was Mike Krzyzewski’s charges who did the dirty work that made the difference; the hosts shot 53.0% from the field, including 32-of-50 from within the arc (64.0%), assisting on an efficient Twenty-One of their Thirty-Five Field Goals, while humiliating the visitors on the boards (Plus-20), and owning a profound advantage from the Charity Stripe, where they knocked down 21-of-28 Free-Throws (75.0%), outscoring North Carolina State by a whopping Fifteen Points. Despite once again struggling mightily from beyond the arc (3-of-16 3FG, 18.8%, )Duke scored Fifty-Eight of their Ninety-Four Points in the Paint, while also making the most of their opponent’s mistakes, turning Twelve Turnovers into Twenty-Two Points. Williamson continued his campaign for National Player of the Year honors, leading the way with Thirty-Two Points on 12-of-16 shooting from the field (75.0%), along with Six Rebounds, an Assist, and Three Steals, marking Saturday’s victory as his third 30-point performance thus far, and tenth in which he totaled Twenty Points or more on at least 70.0% shooting overall.
Of course, Williamson’s exploits were, as we’ve come to expect, fantastic, but even he had to take a backseat to a historic performance courtesy of his teammate Barrett, who in logging Twenty-Three Points, Eleven Rebounds, and Ten Assists became just the fourth player in school history to post a Triple-Double. Think about that for a moment, and consider all of the outstanding players throughout the long, storied history of that program, and you’ll come to appreciate what the Freshman accomplished. Duke’s first Triple-Double since Sheldon Williams did so back in 2006, Barrett shot 8-of-17 from the field (47.1%), while also refraining from committing a single Turnover, which is also pretty impressive for such a young player. Coach K summed it up with “He’s very advanced, and he’s very young, and he’s going to be here for a very short time.” confirming reports that the Forward won’t have to wait long to hear his name announced after Williamson’s in this Summer’s NBA Draft. With that said, nobody should really be surprised that this kid pulled off such a feat, for he very nearly did so back in December during the Blue Devils’ lone loss in league play, coming up Three Assists short of a Triple-Double against Syracuse. There’s also the fact that Krzyzewski relies HEAVILY upon he and his Freshmen peers, with that aforementioned quartet each logging over thirty minutes per game, and accounting for 67.6 of the team’s 84.6 Points, or in other words, 79.9% of it’s scoring. We’ll see if their lack of depth becomes an issue, for this team is still very much in the midst of a hellish portion of their schedule, which features five out of six opponents ranked in the Polls (Virginia, Louisville, North Carolina State, North Carolina, and Virginia Tech), with the only unranked team being the Orange, who again, handed them their last and only ACC defeat.