Luke Kennard scored 20 points in Duke's first matchup with North Carolina and could have to take ...

Key three: Duke men's basketball vs. North Carolina

The Blue Devils can clinch a double bye in next week's ACC tournament with a win Saturday night at North Carolina, which has already locked up the top seed in the tournament. Nearly a month after Duke beat the Tar Heels in Durham, here are three keys for the Blue Devils to sweep their arch rivals.

Limit the Heels in the paint

In the first meeting between these teams this year, North Carolina was without star big man Isaiah Hicks, who averages 11.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game. Duke took advantage of his absence to the tune of a surprising win in the rebounding column 31-30, as freshman Jayson Tatum led all players with nine boards. With Hicks returning tomorrow night, the Blue Devils will need another all-out effort in the post to keep up with the Tar Heels’ experienced forwards. 

Kennedy Meeks was held to just five rebounds in the Feb. 9 meeting between the two rivals, well off his season average of 9.1. Hicks, meanwhile, has posted eight and seven rebounds in North Carolina’s last two home games against then-No. 14 Virginia and then-No. 7 Louisville, respectively. With star 6-foot-8 junior Justin Jackson on the floor as well, it will be difficult to get boards against a stacked North Carolina frontcourt. 

The Tar Heels' average rebounding margin of 13.3 leads the nation by more than three boards per game. The burden will fall on Tatum and graduate student Amile Jefferson, as well as the rotation of freshmen Harry Giles and Marques Bolden, to hold their own in the paint and prevent the Blue Devils from getting hammered on the boards.

Get the scorers going early

After scoring 25 points against the Tar Heels, junior Grayson Allen has reached double-digit scoring just once in the five games he has played since. He figures to be in a limited role at best again Saturday due to a left ankle injury, meaning Tatum, as well as classmate Frank Jackson and sophomore Luke Kennard, will likely provide the bulk of the Blue Devils’ offense. Tatum was sensational in the second half the last time the teams met, scoring all of his 19 points after halftime to put North Carolina away. 

Tomorrow, however, Duke needs all of its weapons to be ready from the opening tip without Allen at full speed. In the Blue Devils’ win against Florida State Tuesday, Jackson provided another glimpse of the spark he can provide—early in the second half, he scored 10 straight Duke points to give the Blue Devils a 19-point lead. The rookie also showed his ability to create shots against North Carolina’s backcourt in February, dropping 11 points on a perfect 4-of-4 performance from the field in just 20 minutes of play.

But the most important part of Duke’s offensive attack tomorrow will be Kennard, the team's MVP thus far and, though only a sophomore, the most experienced player in this trio. Kennard finished second only to Allen with 20 points in his first outing against the Tar Heels, and will be called upon to knock down big shots again.

Stay cool on the road

Although it will be key for Duke’s heralded rookies to show their skills against a more experienced North Carolina team, it will be just as crucial for the Blue Devils’ veterans to stay calm and focused in a hostile road arena. Duke is just 3-5 in true road games this season, and has dropped its last two games away from home to a pair of dangerous, but still middle-of-the-pack ACC teams in Syracuse and Miami. Jefferson and fellow veteran captain Matt Jones have to make sure the team does not get sloppy on either side of the ball. 

Offensively, the Blue Devils posted their lowest scoring output of the season last Saturday at Miami with just 50 points, in part because of a minus-three turnover margin. In their two most recent road games, the Blue Devils have also combined to shoot just 35.4 percent from the field, 12 percent worse than their season average of 47.4 percent. To keep up with a North Carolina offense that averages 85.0 points per game, the veterans need to make sure Duke keeps its cool on the offensive end.

On the other end of the floor, Jefferson and Jones also need to make sure the Blue Devils don’t let the Tar Heels go on any extended runs. North Carolina is deadly when its offense starts getting out in transition, and containing point guard Joel Berry II—who is averaging 14.7 points per game—will be critical. Duke also needs to shut down Jackson, the Tar Heels’ leading scorer and one of the top contenders for ACC Player of the Year. The junior forward had 14 points in the first half alone at Cameron Indoor Stadium this year, but was held to just seven in the second half. 

The Blue Devils need a similar defensive effort as they had down the stretch of their previous meeting to keep North Carolina from going on a potentially game-sealing run in front of what is sure to be a raucous crowd at the Dean Dome.

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