The best rivalry in college basketball is renewed Thursday night as Duke hosts North Carolina in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Ranked 18th in the latest Top 25 poll with an 18-5 overall record and 6-4 record in league play, the Blue Devils are still working to catch UNC in the ACC race, where the Tar Heels sit atop the conference standings at 9-2.
The Tar Heels are currently ranked No. 8 in the AP Top 25 with an overall record of 21-4, and are still working to position themselves for a potential No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
As is almost always the case, there will be a lot on the line when the two teams face each other on Thursday night – not to mention the pride and bragging rights that come with a victory.
Here are 5 keys that will be critical to Duke’s success.
Duke will have its hands full on the glass against the Tar Heels. North Carolina is one of the best rebounding teams in the country and is currently ranked first in offensive rebounding percentage, according to Kenpom. In last season’s win over Duke in Durham, UNC finished with a +35 rebounding advantage, which included grabbing 27 offensive rebounds. Brice Johnson had 21 rebounds (12 offensive) and, fortunately for the Blue Devils, he’s now in the NBA. However, guys like Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, and Tony Bradley could still create problems in the paint for Duke. Scoring opportunities from offensive rebounds are an effective part of UNC’s offense, and the Blue Devils have to limit those chances as much as they can.
2. Justin Jackson vs. Jayson Tatum
This could be the matchup that NBA scouts are most interested in seeing. Justin Jackson and Jayson Tatum have similar physical frames, as they’re both 6’8”, approximately 210 pounds, and have great length. Both players also possess similar skills in their ability to score from any part of the floor, which should make for an intriguing individual matchup between them. Now in his junior year, Jackson has the edge in experience, which could be crucial in an emotional rivalry game like this one. However, Tatum has shown flashes this season of why he’s viewed by many as a potential future All-Star at the next level.
3. Bench Production
The team that gets the best play out of its bench could be the x-factor on Thursday night. With a rotation that likely includes Harry Giles, Marques Bolden, and Matt Jones, Duke should have the advantage in this area, but all three players have struggled with consistency this season. Tony Bradley is coming off a strong performance against Notre Dame for North Carolina, and there’s also the question of the status of Theo Pinson and whether he may come off the bench after missing the past three games due to an ankle injury. Which player will step up to give his team a lift?
4. Joel Berry
If there’s one player on the North Carolina roster who makes me the most nervous, it’s junior point guard Joel Berry. He’s averaging 14.9 points and four assists while shooting 42% from 3-point range and over 87% from the free throw line. Berry could exploit Duke’s lack of a true point guard on both ends of the floor, and his playmaking ability could expose Duke’s vulnerable defense. He’s also proved himself in big games, showing it last year as one of the best point guards in the country during the postseason.
5. Playing with Poise
There’s something special about a North Carolina-Duke game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The crowd is at its best and the atmosphere is unlike anything the players will have experienced prior to this point in the season. For Duke, it’s critical the players feed off the energy of the crowd while also maintaining composure and not trying to do too much. This is especially important for young guys like Frank Jackson and Jayson Tatum, emotional players who have struggled at times this season with being overly aggressive. The leadership of Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson will be big in reminding the guys to play with passion, but also with poise.
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