UNC vs. Duke Preview
Before the college basketball season started, many expected Duke to be ranked among the elite teams in the nation for most of the year. Their Tobacco Road rival, North Carolina, was expected to take a step back this season after losing in the national championship and the departure of All-Americans Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson. So far this year, the roles have been reversed. The Blue Devils have been inconsistent all season for a number reasons – injuries, lack of a true point guard, dirtbag antics by Grayson Allen, and most recently, the absence of Coach K on the sidelines. Roy Williams’ Tar Heels have the look of a legit Final Four contender again this season spearheaded by a breakout, All-American caliber season by Justin Jackson, along with a stout frontcourt and the steady production of Joel Berry. UNC (21-4) and Duke (18-5) come into Thursday’s showdown ranked 8th and 18th respectively, setting the stage for what should be another great game in this historic rivalry.
Storylines to Watch:
The Health of Theo Pinson
UNC’s fate at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Thursday may rest on the health of Theo Pinson who has missed the last three games with an ankle injury. Pinson is the Tar Heels’ emotional leader and their best perimeter defender. At 6’6” he has the length and athleticism to hang with most wings on the college level. If he’s out, UNC will have to rely on guards Kenny Williams and Nate Britt to guard All-American Grayson Allen and ACC Player of the Year candidate Luke Kennard. The game against Kentucky in Las Vegas was the last time Williams and Britt were asked to cover one of college basketball’s best guards. Malik Monk hung 47 on Williams and Britt, including the go ahead three to give the Wildcats the win. If Theo Pinson is limited or can’t play on Thursday, Kennard or Allen may be primed for a game similar to Monk’s.
Can Duke hang with UNC’s frontcourt?
For the second straight season, North Carolina has the best frontcourt in college hoops. The combination of Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Tony Bradley and Luke Maye has proven to be either too big or too athletic for most teams this season. UNC is also the best offensive rebounding team in college basketball and will look to impose their will against the unproven frontcourt of Duke. Amile Jefferson, Duke’s leading rebounder, has shown he can hold his own against most of college basketball’s big men, but freshman Harry Giles and Marques Bolden have yet to prove they are ready for the college game on the defensive end. The Blue Devils star freshman, Jayson Tatum, has been seeing more time at the power forward position for Duke as of late, and he’s been a matchup nightmare due to his quickness and skill on the perimeter. Coach K may choose to stick with Tatum at power forward for most of the game, which could potentially lead to foul trouble for Hicks or Bradley.
Jackson has finally performed like the player many expected him to be coming out of high school with the likes of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson no longer in Chapel Hill. After two years of struggling from behind the arc, Jackson has made 66 treys on the season. He had made a total of 64 before this year. Jackson has consistently got buckets all year (18.6 PPG), scoring at least 16 points in every ACC game so far. He’s also scored over 20 points eleven times this year, including a career-high 34 against Kentucky.
Kennard has indisputably been Duke’s best player all season long, taking the title from Grayson Allen. He’s third in the ACC in scoring, averaging 19.6 points a game, and he’s had multiple games this year where he’s looked unstoppable. With the ability to score from anywhere on the court, Kennard already has three games with at least 34 points on the season. His most recent scoring outburst was two games ago against Wake Forest. Kennard dropped 30 of his 34 points against the Demon Decons in the second half, and he made all six of his attempts from behind the arc.
With the game being at home, Coach K back on the sidelines and the team at full strength, Duke should be the favorites on Thursday. However, I’m picking the Tar Heels, because I refuse to ever pick Duke against my Tar Heels even if it goes against conventional wisdom.
Final Score: 83-79 Tar Heels
Only a dirtbag would let a Tar Heel reenact the Jordan logo on them. My prayers still go out to Greg Paulus and his loved ones.