Here's a position by position breakdown of the Duke and North Carolina key players. The two teams meet this Saturday in Cameron Indoor Stadium at 7 p.m.
Tyler Zeller vs. Mason/Miles Plumlee
Tyler Zeller: 16.2 ppg, 9.3 reb, 1.5 blk
While most Blue Devil fans likely remember Zeller’s ignominious finish to the first Duke-North Carolina game—in which the big man missed two free throws, accidentally tipped in a Duke miss and allowed Austin Rivers to shoot over him for the game winning 3-pointer—that shouldn’t overshadow what has otherwise been an excellent senior season. Zeller will likely be named the ACC player of the year, as he’s reached double digit scoring in 15 of his last 16 games, currently placing him fifth in the ACC in scoring. He’s gotten even stronger as the season has progressed, putting up 20 points against Virginia last Saturday and 30 against Maryland Wednesday. Don’t discount his defense either—against Virginia he held star Mike Scott, who came into the game ranked second in the ACC in scoring, to a mere six points.
He’s also been a force on the boards with 10 double-doubles this season, as he ranks third in the ACC in rebounds per game. His work on the glass has helped the Tar Heels to the largest rebounding margin in the country, and will certainly make life difficult for the Plumlee brothers. Lest you forget, going into the final two minutes of last month’s game, Zeller had dominated down low, finishing with 23 points and 11 boards. There appears to be little in the way of him doing it again Saturday.
Mason Plumlee: 10.8 ppg, 9.4 reb, 1.5 blk
Miles Plumlee: 6.5 ppg, 7.0 reb, .9 blk
Miles Plumlee has started the past two games in Mason’s place, and probably will again Saturday on Senior Night, but you can guarantee Mason will see plenty of minutes as head coach Mike Krzyzewski tries to slow down the North Carolina frontcourt. After struggling for the beginning of the season, Miles has become a completely different player following the game in Chapel Hill. In the six games since, Miles has averaged 12 rebounds a game, giving the Blue Devils the reliable force on the glass they lacked last time against the Tar Heels.
Unfortunately his resurgence appears to have come at his brother’s expense. Mason, who ranks second in the ACC in rebounds with 9.4, has struggled heavily in the past few games. He’s averaged only five points and six rebounds in his past four contests, including his measly one point against Florida State in which the junior was plagued with foul trouble the entire night. Krzyzewski has since responded by giving Mason’s starting spot up to his brother, and Mason has shown signs of recovery. Against Wake Forest he scored 12 points, including going 8-9 from the charity stripe. Expect Krzyzewski to cycle through both Plumlees early and often to try and wear down Zeller, as this game will likely be determined by the bigs.
Edge: Tar Heels
John Henson vs. Ryan Kelly
John Henson: 14.2 ppg, 10.3 reb, 3.1 blk
The junior simply gobbles up everything on the glass, as Henson leads the ACC in rebounds and averages a double-double a game. He’s one of the best rebounders in the country, as his wiry 6-foot-11 frame allows him to reach anything and everything. Furthermore his 3.1 blocks per game places him in the top 10 in the country, so opposing offenses are forced to account for him at all times. This season he’s added a mid-range jumper to his repertoire, as the extra range helps create space for himself and Zeller by opening up the lane. Ryan Kelly is also apt at defending away from the basket, but the extra space for Zeller could pose problems for the Plumlees. Last time against Duke, Henson dominated the glass, grabbing 17 rebounds, including six on the offensive side. Duke has to keep him off the boards this time around to limit the Tar Heel’s second-chance opportunities.
Ryan Kelly: 12.2 ppg, 5.5 reb, 1.0 blk
Ryan Kelly proved the hero for Duke against Wake Forest last Tuesday, as the junior put up a season-high 23 points to help avoid the upset bid. Unfortunately, Kelly hasn’t been able to consistently exhibit a high-level of play every game. He’s had 12 games of over 15 points this season, but also has failed to score more than eight points on nine different occasions. The Blue Devils simply don’t know which Kelly is going to show up. Kelly does have one big advantage over Henson however in his 3-point shooting. Kelly is shooting 43 percent behind the arc this season, which means Henson will have to defend him on the perimeter where his shot-blocking abilities won’t be as helpful. If Kelly can hit one or two 3-pointers early, the lane should open up for Curry and Rivers to drive without having to look over their shoulder in fear of Henson. Also with Josh Hariston questionable with a head injury, expect to see either of the Plumlee brothers in this spot at times.
Edge: Tar Heels
Harrison Barnes vs. Austin Rivers
Harrison Barnes: 17.4 ppg, 5.1 reb, 1.1 ast
After last month’s game, this is sure to be the most closely watched matchup. Barnes ranks second in the ACC in scoring and has put up 20 or more points 12 times this season. Despite battling a sore left ankle the first time these two teams met, if it weren’t for Rivers’ last second 3-pointer, Barnes would have been the hero of the game. After not recording a field goal in the first half, Barnes scored 19 points after halftime, as his combination of size and athleticism proved impossible for the Blue Devils to stop. Barnes is listed at 6-foot-8, and Rivers is just 6-foot-4, giving Barnes an immense height advantage. Unfortunately with the addition of the 3-point shot—Barnes is shooting 40 percent from beyond the arc—he is nearly impossible to defend. The Blue Devils may not be able to stop him from scoring, but like last month, they can hope to slow him down just enough to give Rivers a chance at the end.
Austin Rivers: 15.3 ppg, 3.3 reb, 2.1 ast
He hit the shot heard round the world. A buzzer-beating 3-pointer over Zeller capped the unlikeliest of comebacks in Chapel Hill, as Duke overcame a 10-point deficit in the final two minutes to shock the Tar Heels, and Rivers was the hero. Rivers scored a game-high 29 points that night and became Duke’s premier scoring weapon. It was the freshman who took charge and dribbled the ball up in the closing seconds. Rivers has simply become the focal point of Duke’s offense. He’s reached double-digit points in the past 13 straight games, and appears a lock for ACC freshman of the year. But can he do it again? You can be sure that Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams will be paying closer attention, and he won’t receive as many open looks as he did last month. Rivers has the ability to score from a variety of ways though, and will find his way into the score sheet one way or another.
Edge: Blue Devils
Seth Curry vs. Reggie Bullock
Reggie Bullock: 8.5 ppg, 4.8 ppg, 1.1 ast
After Dexter Strickland went down with a torn ACL earlier in the season, Bullock stepped up into the starting line-up and has been solid, providing rebounding and defense to a Tar Heel lineup that doesn’t need another scorer. He does have range from the perimeter, shooting over 38 percent from deep, so Duke can’t slack off him on defense. He isn’t however a key part in North Carolina’s offense, as he’s involved in only 15 percent of its possessions according to Kenpom. He does have the ability to affect the game with his defense though, and could make life tough for Duke’s guards.
Seth Curry: 13.6 ppg, 2.6 reb, 2.4 ast
The redshirt junior has been asked to perform a variety of different roles for Duke this season, from running the point, to providing range from deep, to being one of the senior leaders on the team. Curry hasn’t disappointed either. He ranks 12th in the ACC in scoring, while showing an ability to light up the scoreboard if the other Blue Devils simply are having an off game. He has scored at least 18 points seven times this season, and is connecting on almost 40 percent of his 3-pointers. He knocked down a crucial shot from beyond the arc during Duke’s comeback against the Tar Heels and finished with 15 points. He’s also been steady from the free-throw line, leading the ACC at an 87-percent clip and providing Duke with someone to turn to in the closing minutes. Curry has proven able to do anything the teams has asked of him this season, and it’s certainly not too much to expect him to help carry the team Saturday.
Edge: Blue Devils
Kendall Marshall vs. Tyler Thornton
Kendall Marshall: 6.8 ppg, 9.6 ast, 1.3 stl
Both point guards help their teams through other ways than scoring points. Marshall is one of the best passers in the league, ranking second in the country in assists and is the engine that makes the Tar Heel offense go. He had eight assists last time against Duke, but did have one very costly turnover in the closing minutes that led to a Curry 3-pointer. You can be sure that the nation’s leader in assist-to-turnover ratio won’t let that happen again.
Tyler Thornton: 3.6 ppg, 2.0 ast, .8 stl
Thornton’s middle name is defense. For a coach that loves defensive pressure and intensity like Coach K, Thornton is a dream come true. Every game he appears to hassle opposing point guards into mistakes, so the matchup between him and Marshall will make for great TV. Now while Thornton doesn’t often impact the stat sheet, he can knock down shots when his team needs them the most. He started the Duke comeback with a big 3-pointer against North Carolina, and is shooting 37 percent from deep on the season. Most of his impact will come with the Blue Devils on defense, however, as he has the ability to singlehandly disrupt the fast-paced Carolina offense.
Edge: Tar Heels