Duke is a young team with largely a fresh lineup trying to gel—trying to form a seamless, effective unit that can flex well at both offense and defense, no matter who’s playing at any given time. Despite early glitches—primarily defensive–Duke has seemed to tighten up their defense significantly in the last three games against Alabama, Arizona, and Michigan. How will they stack up against their arch rival Carolina? Good question.
To say that UNC’s basketball team has been on a roller coaster is an understatement. They’ve lost games to Belmont and UAB and won against Louisville, the NCAA defending champion, and number one ranked Michigan State. How could this happen?
The Tar Heels lost to Belmont 83-80; but they out-rebounded Belmont 44-29, they had three less turnovers (13-16), and they had a better field goal percentage: 48%-45%. So what’s up? Now here are some crucial stats: Belmont was 15-37 from 3-point land, UNC was 2-7, so at least Belmont got more trifectas. But the true clincher is that UNC missed 26 free throws (22-48) and Belmont made 20 out of 22!
How did the Tar Heels lose 63-59 to UAB? Well, the initial numbers are not terribly significant. UNC had 12 turnovers to UAB’s 9. UNC scored 1-12 3-pointers, while UAB scored 3-12. This time UNC didn’t do nearly as poorly from the free throw line either, though UAB shot a lot more of them (UNC 4-11, UAB 22-28). And, on top of that, UNC had a better field goal percentage: UNC: 42.9% UAB 30.6%. So how on earth did the Blazers win? The game-changing difference is in the rebounding column. UAB hauled down 52 rebounds to UNC’s 37. It shouldn’t be too surprising that currently UAB is the ESPN #1 ranked team nationally in that department. That had to be the primary reason the Blazers came out on top.
Then, out of the blue (no pun intended) the Tar Heels rocked Louisville, 93-84. A few key stats are very similar. Both teams had 14 turnovers, and UNC had 40 rebounds to the Cardinals’ 35. UNC even repeated their atrocious free throw shooting: Louisville scored 21 out of 25; UNC scored 26 out of 38. In addition, UNC repeated their pitiful 3-point shooting. They were 3-6 while Louisville was 11-31. But somehow the Heels had a significantly higher field goal percentage: 54.2% to 38.8%. That had to be the key stat because other North Carolina numbers do not stand out.
Finally, the Tar Heels defeated number one ranked Michigan State 79-65. It’s true that Appling, State’s outstanding point guard, went down with an injury near the end of the first half, but I’m sure the Spartans wouldn’t want to lean on that excuse. On paper some of the stats look pretty even. UNC had 13 turnovers to State’s 14. The teams were fairly even in free throw shooting (MI 12-18, UNC 19-27). The Tar Heels were again poor from the 3-point line: UNC: 2-11; MI 7-24. But the Heels did do significantly better in two areas. They yanked down 49 rebounds to the Spartans’ 38 and they shot 44.6% to the Spartans’ 35.9%. Rebounding and field goal percentage appeared to be the difference-makers.
So how can the Blue Devils successfully battle the Tar Heels later this season? UNC has been very inconsistent in free throw shooting, but Duke can’t count on that being the case.
1) Duke is potentially a strong 3-point shooting team and UNC is not. The opposing teams above have generally shot a lot of 3-pointers without great success—Duke must shoot and score a high percentage against the Heels.
2) If UNC can’t shoot well from the 3-point line they must be scoring in the paint. And that is a huge factor that Duke must continue to address and improve on. Tar Heels must not be allowed to shoot jumpers and go to the rim at will.
3) Except for the UAB game, UNC has done quite well in the rebounding department, and that has been a glaring weakness for Duke. As Rodney Hood said recently, “For Duke, we must all begin scrapping for rebounds and must ‘gang rebound’ after every shot.”
4) Several sportscasters have commented that few teams have been hurt worse than Duke with the tighter foul calling. In the past Duke has thrived on stuff like hand checking and taking charges. In several of the games above, UNC drew a ton of fouls (38 and 48 free throws). Duke must be careful not to foul.
Duke can win over UNC, even if the Superman version of the Tar Heels shows up. The Blue Devils have the Kryptonite.