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Chron Chat: Scouting North Carolina ahead of the Tobacco Road rivalry

<p>Junior Justin Jackson has taken a big leap for North Carolina, averaging 18.6 points per game and shooting almost 40 percent from the field.&nbsp;</p>

Junior Justin Jackson has taken a big leap for North Carolina, averaging 18.6 points per game and shooting almost 40 percent from the field. 

Ahead of Thursday’s Duke-North Carolina clash at Cameron Indoor Stadium, The Chronicle’s men’s basketball beat writers Amrith Ramkumar, Sameer Pandhare, Hank Tucker and Brian Pollack scout the No. 8 Tar Heels and explain what they’re most looking forward to watching Thursday night.

Grayson Allen has had three solid games during Duke's recent three-game winning streak. What has been the biggest reason behind Allen's success in the last week?

Amrith Ramkumar: To me, the biggest difference is that Allen is not second-guessing himself when he gets the ball coming off screens on the perimeter. He has made 13 triples in the three wins, with many of them coming off quick catch-and-shoot opportunities following down screens or dribble handoffs. It no longer looks like Allen is worried about deferring to Luke Kennard, Jayson Tatum, Amile Jefferson or anyone else for that matter, and I think the result is that Duke’s offense has better spacing.

Allen’s aggressiveness as a shooter opens up driving lanes for himself and others, and he has still shown the ability to find teammates inside for easy looks as well while displaying more of a scoring mentality. Obviously a lot of this is contingent on the outside shots going in, but I’m looking forward to seeing how Allen attacks a defense that allows more than eight made triples per contest.

Hank Tucker: Basketball is a simple game at its core. Shots need to go in the basket more often than not, and Allen has knocked down a lot of key shots in this three-game stretch. Without his triple to trim the deficit to one with less than a minute left at Wake Forest, Duke probably would have lost that game, and his 3-point shooting late in the last two games has also helped the Blue Devils hold off a pair of scares. If Allen had a 1-of-9 night from deep in any of those three games like he did more than two weeks ago against N.C. State, the results may have been different.

But as Amrith pointed out, hot shooting seems to fuel his game in other ways. He is asserting himself and attacking the boards much more effectively, grabbing at least five rebounds in each of the last three games after reaching that threshold just three times in his previous 12 contests. Duke’s frontcourt will have to bear much of the burden of containing the best rebounding team in the country, but the Blue Devils could certainly use any help they can get from the perimeter.

Sameer Pandhare: Allen’s play has really been fueled by his ability to knock down perimeter jumpers consistently. Although making injury excuses is a particular pet peeve of mine, there’s no denying that Allen’s form on his jump shot looks cleaner in the last three games than it did when he struggled with a finger injury against Miami and N.C. State or his early-season toe injury.

Partially due to the extra attention on Kennard following his second-half performance against Wake Forest, Allen has been able to get good looks and knock them down with consistency. With teams forced to respect his jumper a little more, the guard has been more aggressive and gotten back to the drive and kick game that makes him such a lethal weapon for the Blue Devils.

Brian Pollack: As everyone else has noted, Allen has started to find the bottom of the net more consistently with his outside shots. A player with shooting skills of Allen’s caliber is bound to start hitting his jumpers at some point, and combined with the fact that Duke has played less-than-stellar defenses lately, that has led to the junior heating up and leading the Blue Devils in scoring in both of the team’s wins last week.

Another factor, though, that has contributed to Allen’s higher output is that Tatum has taken a step back and ceded shots to some of his upperclassmen teammates. After averaging nearly 13 field goal attempts in the first seven games of ACC play, Tatum has put up just 27 shots in his last three contests, passing more effectively and helping Duke space the floor better. This has opened up a lot more room for Allen to operate, both in attacking the lane and shooting off screens, and allowed him to step into a more assertive role on offense.

North Carolina pummeled the Blue Devils on the board in both meetings a year ago. If Duke hopes to avoid a similar fate Thursday, which frontcourt player needs to step up?

AR: Frankly I don’t see a way the Blue Devils stay with the Tar Heels on the glass. North Carolina emphasizes rebounding so much—particularly on the offensive end, where the Tar Heels are second in the country—and plays with two physical big men at almost all times, making it seemingly impossible to stop them from gobbling up boards and second-chance points. That’s why they lead the nation in rebounding margin—by 2.6 boards per game. I think Duke should be more concerned with generating its own offensive rebounds and buckets inside and at least making North Carolina work for extra opportunities. From that standpoint, I look for Harry Giles to step up.

Tatum is the obvious answer here for the Blue Devils, but I think if Giles can stay out of foul trouble, his rebounding ability is a major X-factor. The 6-foot-10 forward was known for his rebounding coming out of high school, and a breakout game would really give his team a boost in the rivalry game. Another key for the Blue Devils will be perimeter ball pressure and forcing turnovers—there are fewer offensive rebounds to get if the other team can’t even get a shot up.

HT: I’m also afraid this matchup might play out a lot like last year’s meeting in Cameron Indoor Stadium, when the Tar Heels outrebounded Duke 64-29 and nearly had as many offensive boards as the Blue Devils accumulated on both ends. I’d expect Duke to start a big lineup with either Giles or even freshman Marques Bolden alongside Jefferson, though neither Giles nor Bolden have played very much in the last couple of weeks.

Giles and Bolden have both struggled to stay out of foul trouble, though, and it will be interesting to see if head coach Mike Krzyzewski feels comfortable with Tatum guarding a big man like Hicks for an extended period of time, or if he is willing to go even deeper into the bench and throw Chase Jeter or Antonio Vrankovic into the fire. But if the Blue Devils’ big men off the bench have to play a lot, things probably won’t be going very well for Duke.

SP: From what we’ve seen so far this year, it looks like Coach K is willing to take the benefit of playing Tatum at the four position on offense, despite the costs it may have on the other end of the floor. In some ways, trying to bait North Carolina’s bigs into foul trouble may be effective—battling for rebounds with Luke Maye and Tony Bradley is certainly more appealing than doing so with Meeks and Hicks.

I’ve been clamoring for Giles to get more time on the floor and I think we may see it out of necessity Thursday. The freshman’s struggles on defense have been more noticeable with quicker point guards and although Joel Berry II is one of the best floor generals in the nation, I wouldn’t classify him as the quickest Duke has faced. Giles should be capable of battling for boards with Meeks and Hicks just based on his size and athleticism alone, and if he can stay out of foul trouble and keep his cool throughout a back-and-forth contest, Giles will be the difference maker Duke needs.

BP: Ideally, this is a game where Duke switches to a bigger lineup to try and counteract North Carolina’s overwhelming size, but I’m not sure that Coach K feels comfortable giving Giles or Bolden enough minutes to make that feasible. Maybe one of them gets the starting nod, as Hank suggested, but when push comes to shove I think it’s going to be a small Blue Devil lineup with Tatum—who really is a better matchup for Tar Heel swingman Justin Jackson—playing the four and having to contend with one of Meeks, Hicks or Bradley.

Tatum has proven himself to be a very strong rebounder this year, particularly on the defensive end, and he’s going to need to come up big in that department again Thursday if Duke has any hopes of fending off the Tar Heels on the glass. Unlike Sameer, I don’t see Giles getting major minutes in this game, so the Blue Devil guards—particularly Matt Jones, who will likely see time guarding Jackson—will need to snatch as many long rebounds as possible to allow Duke’s frontcourt to focus on North Carolina’s interior presence.

Despite losing Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson from their national runner-up team a year ago, the Tar Heels find themselves sitting atop the ACC heading into Thursday's game. What has been the biggest reason for UNC's success this season?

AR: I’ve been pretty high on this team all season, primarily because of how balanced it is offensively. With Paige and Johnson gone, Berry and Jackson have adapted quickly to more prominent roles and played great basketball all year—both players are shooting better than 39 percent from 3-point range but are equally dangerous attacking the rim and getting to the free throw line. Meeks, Hicks and Bradley give North Carolina a trio of traditional big men that few teams can match, and that combination makes the Tar Heels almost impossible to guard when they can knock down a few perimeter shots.

Because so few teams have that many physical big men inside, North Carolina has been able to overwhelm teams in transition when it’s engaged defensively. Defensive consistency is definitely the Tar Heels’ main weakness, though—they play very quickly, which can lead to transition baskets for the opponent and a long night if North Carolina turns the ball over.

HT: Berry and Jackson are getting most of the consideration for All-ACC honors, and deservedly so, but it helps that when they miss shots, there’s a good chance the Tar Heels will get the ball back. It all comes down to rebounding for North Carolina, with Meeks, Hicks and Bradley combining to average more than 20 a game and Luke Maye available off the bench as a threat on the boards.

Bradley has adjusted to the college game as a five-star freshman center much better than Jeter or Bolden have down the road in Durham, giving the Tar Heels valuable depth in the frontcourt, and Meeks and Hicks are both physical, mature senior leaders. This is the type of experienced successful team that was common before the one-and-done era in college basketball, with upperclassmen stepping into voids left by departing seniors after developing and waiting their turns for a couple of years. Although North Carolina leaves a lot to be desired defensively, it certainly has the potential to make another deep run in March.

SP: Berry is certainly building an first-team All-ACC case and Bradley has been impressive as a freshman. But for me, North Carolina’s success has really come down to the play of Jackson. The junior’s scoring average has jumped a little more than six points and he’s shooting more than 10 percent better from deep than a year ago. At a lanky 6-foot-8, Jackson was always a capable defender with his size and wingspan, but converting him into a weapon on offense has been one of Roy Williams' greatest accomplishments in recent years.

With the graduation of Paige and Johnson, Jackson has really grown into his role as a leader on and off the court for one of the more experienced teams in the nation. After putting up just two points on 1-of-8 shooting in Cameron as a freshman, considering Jackson as North Carolina’s biggest weapon two year laters seems hard to believe, but be wary.

BP: If the Tar Heels had even an average defense, I think they’d be leading the conversation for best team in the country right now, because their offense is incredibly deep and can beat you in any number of ways. Berry hasn’t missed a beat stepping in to fill Paige’s shoes, and he and Jackson have helped shore up the one weakness from last year’s team—woeful shooting from the 3-point line—by both shooting around 40 percent from deep.

I agree with Sameer that Jackson’s improvement has been tremendous, and in arguably North Carolina’s biggest game of the season against Kentucky, the swingman went shot-for-shot with Malik Monk and poured in 34 points on just 17 shots. But part of what allows Jackson to be so effective is that the Tar Heels’ lineup normally features two big men, forcing opposing defenses to allocate any size they have to the inside to prevent easy post-ups and putbacks. North Carolina doesn’t have a standout two-guard, but with Berry controlling the flow from the point, Jackson dominating from the wing and a host of big bodies bullying their way around inside, the Tar Heels have proven very difficult to stop this year.

The Blue Devils sit 2.5 games back of the Tar Heels in the conference standings. Is UNC your favorite to win the regular-season crown and does Duke still have a realistic shot of working its way to the top?

AR: I picked the Tar Heels to win it before ACC play began, and I’m sticking with that selection. Many have lamented the Blue Devils’ injuries all season, and rightfully so, but North Carolina has risen to the top of the ACC standings with Theo Pinson barely contributing due to injuries. The junior wing is a more natural fit to play the three in the Tar Heel lineup than Kenny Williams and should return soon, which could give North Carolina a big boost during a brutal closing seven-game stretch that features Duke and Virginia twice and Louisville once. Despite its recent slip-ups, Florida State is actually in good position with a much easier closing schedule, though the Seminoles are a game behind and North Carolina has the tiebreaker—another reason I’m sticking with the Tar Heels.

I think the Blue Devils making their way all the way to the top is unrealistic unless Duke plays at a level we haven’t consistently seen so far. The Blue Devils play three of the five teams ahead of them in the standings on the road, which is a tall order considering they are already 2.5 games back and also have to play Florida State at home. I would say the realistic best case for Duke is to move up into the top three or four and enjoy a double-bye in the ACC tournament—something that seemed impossible when the Blue Devils were 3-4 in league play.

HT: I still think Virginia is more of a threat than North Carolina in March because the Cavaliers have the best defense in the nation, but they are a game behind the Tar Heels in the standings with just seven games to play, and it will be difficult to pick that game up. If North Carolina can salvage a split with Virginia in the teams’ two February meetings, the Tar Heels will have the inside track to the regular-season crown.

Duke still improbably controls its own destiny in the ACC with two games against the Tar Heels, one at Virginia and another game against Florida State, but the odds the Blue Devils make it through that gauntlet without a loss are small, to say the least. Any more slip-ups against the conference’s top teams would probably put Duke in too big of a hole to overcome and sink its chances of claiming any tiebreakers.

SP: Amrith can brag about picking North Carolina before ACC play, but I’ve been pushing Florida State as a darkhorse for quite sometime now. The Seminoles took care of business by going 5-1 during their brutal six-game stretch, only to follow up with a pair of disappointing losses to Georgia Tech and Syracuse. But Florida State has steadied itself in back-to-back wins against Miami and Clemson. Although four of their final six games are on the road, I expect the Seminoles to drop only one of those and finish 14-4 in conference play. Before we get too crazy about North Carolina, it would be good to see them play some of the better teams in the conference, which will happen soon enough with five games against ranked teams remaining.

Duke is still mathematically in play for a regular-season title and the Blue Devils still do have five games remaining against the teams ahead of them in the ACC standings. At the end of the day, the road to the top seems a bit too cluttered for a Duke team that is still growing. A more realistic expectation for the Blue Devils would be to claim a top-four seed and earn a double-bye in the ACC tournament.

BP: Duke still has at least one game left against every team above it in the conference standings except Louisville, so if the Blue Devils win out they are guaranteed at least a share of the regular-season crown. That’s a very tall order, though, and with two games against North Carolina, road games at Virginia and Syracuse and a home rematch against Florida State, I see Duke dropping at least two more ACC games, which would destroy any hopes of the top seed in the ACC tournament.

Right now, Florida State looks like the favorite to me, as the Seminoles have the lightest remaining schedule of the top tier teams. Two games in 10 days between Virginia and North Carolina are going to have major consequences as well, and if one side sweeps both of those contest, I could see that team making a run at Florida State. For the Blue Devils, I don’t think a top-four seed is out of the question, but their remaining schedule doesn’t do them any favors and they would certainly need to raise their level of play to earn that double-bye for Brooklyn.

When the two Tobacco Road rivals square off, things always seem to come down to the wire. What is your prediction for Thursday night's game and who will be the player of the game?

AR: Many of Duke’s games this year have been disjointed and sloppy at times, but I think facing a bigger opponent that likes to play fast and struggles to defend the 3-point line should lead to a high-scoring, entertaining matchup with plenty of impressive shot-making. I expect the Blue Devils to come out strong since they really need a signature win, and I’m fascinated to see whether Coach K and company elect to play small or insert a second big man alongside Amile Jefferson to try to battle inside.

I think Allen will have a big night for Duke and I actually expect Meeks to cause a lot of problems for the Blue Devils unless Marques Bolden can give Duke some major minutes—Meeks just seems too strong down low for the other Blue Devil big men. Since I think Duke is still getting used to having all its pieces active, I have the Tar Heels pulling out a close one 85-82, and I’ll go with a sleeper and say Meeks for player of the game even though Jackson is another likely candidate.

HT: I think an electric crowd at Cameron should keep the game close, but so much has to go right for the Blue Devils to come away with the win. If Jefferson gets in foul trouble, Duke is toast, and Bolden or Giles needs to be able to stay on the court for more than a few minutes, too. Experts raved about the Blue Devils’ depth before the season started, but North Carolina has once again wound up with a better bench.

I expect the Tar Heels to feed Hicks whenever Tatum is guarding him, and the senior forward should be able to have a field day on the glass and get to the foul line a lot. I’ll take Hicks as the player of the game with around 20 points and 15 rebounds, and although Duke will get plenty of easy points in transition, another lopsided rebounding advantage should be enough to push North Carolina to a 79-77 win.

SP: Maybe I’m being a prisoner of the moment, but I do think the Blue Devils have built some momentum with Krzyzewski back and their full complement of players healthy. Allen’s play has been the biggest boost for the team and I expect that to continue Thursday when he carries Duke to a 78-74 victory. The Blue Devil offense has been stagnant at times this season, but North Carolina has struggled traditionally to defend the 3-pointer and the duo of Allen and Kennard isn’t great news for that.

For as much flak Tatum has taken for not passing enough or struggling to shoot the three, the freshman has defended better than expected and has the size to at least get a body on Hicks.

The Tar Heels haven’t looked especially overwhelming in recent wins against Pittsburgh and Notre Dame and I don’t believe in North Carolina’s perimeter shooting enough to see them coming out of Cameron Indoor Stadium with a victory.

BP: Although I don’t really believe Duke has improved significantly during its three-game winning streak, North Carolina always seems to find a way to lose games it shouldn’t. Last year’s Blue Devil win at the Dean Dome is a prime example of this, but even without trusting the Tar Heels completely, I think they just present too many problems for Duke to overcome Thursday night.

I expect the backcourt duo of Allen and Kennard to have a big night for the home team, and that will certainly keep the game close and exciting. But in the end, I think the North Carolina’s imposing frontcourt will overwhelm a Blue Devil team that lacks depth down low, and Berry and Jackson hit enough shots from the outside to carry the Tar Heels to an 80-75 victory.

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