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Five things to watch in Duke and North Carolina's first matchup of the year

<p>Joel Berry II has not shot well in his final year as a Tar Heel.</p>

Joel Berry II has not shot well in his final year as a Tar Heel.

After a stunning loss to St. John’s, the Blue Devils will look to avoid their third loss in four games when they take on North Carolina Thursday. The Tar Heels have also been reeling with three consecutive losses before a win against cellar-dweller Pittsburgh. We review the five biggest questions heading into the first edition of the Tobacco Road Rivalry. 

Can the Blue Devils get Marvin Bagley III back on track? 

In the midst of a historic freshman season, Bagley has struggled in his last two contests. After a season-worst 4-of-14 performance against Notre Dame, the forward committed six turnovers and was saddled with foul trouble in the loss to the Red Storm. On paper, Bagley looks poised to have a big game against a North Carolina team that has just one rotation player taller than 6-foot-8. But the freshman can expect the Tar Heels to expend much of their effort making entry passes tough to Bagley and forcing him to work for good post position. 

To take advantage of Bagley’s size, the Blue Devils will need to make a concerted effort to work through their big men. Although Duke has grown accustomed to pushing the pace and getting out in transition, it may actually be beneficial for the Blue Devils to slow the pace early in the game and allow Bagley and Wendell Carter Jr. to get in rhythm. 

Who will win the battle on the boards? 

Duke has been outrebounded by North Carolina in four of the teams’ last five matchups. The two best rebounding teams in the ACC will face off Thursday, with the Tar Heels currently leading the conference at 43.5 rebounds per game. Despite the Blue Devils' size advantage, the team struggled to close possessions with a board against St. John’s, allowing 16 offensive rebounds. Duke’s struggles on defense have only magnified the need to hold teams to just one possession.

Junior Luke Maye leads the Tar Heels at 10.3 rebounds per game and forward Theo Pinson has averaged nine rebounds per contest in North Carolina’s last five games.  The Blue Devils have relied on Carter and Bagley to clean the glass for much of the season. But without a full team effort following missed shots, Duke could find itself on the wrong side of the rebounding battle once again. 

How often will the Tar Heels go small? 

Head coach Roy Williams appeared to solve the problems that plagued North Carolina early in ACC play when he replaced freshmen big Garrison Brooks with forward Cameron Johnson. But after a recent three-game skid, it remains to be seen what lineup works best for the Tar Heels. The addition of Johnson provides the team with more scoring, but sacrifices the team’s girth on the interior. 

The chess match between Williams and Mike Krzyzewski will be one that could decide the game. Although the Blue Devils’ duo of Bagley and Carter will pose all sorts of trouble for North Carolina down low, the freshman bigs have shown a tendency to get beat on the pick-and-roll and struggle to stay in front of penetrating guards. The Tar Heels small-ball lineup features five players shorter than 6-foot-8, but it may be worth sacrificing defense for offense against a Duke team that ranks 74th in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric. 

Who will win the battle of the senior guards? 

Expectations were high coming into the year for both Joel Berry and Grayson Allen, and to this point, neither has played to his potential. Allen is coming off one of the worst games of his career with just seven points on 1-of-7 shooting in Saturday’s loss. Meanwhile, Berry—last year’s NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player—has shot just 38.9 percent this season after shooting better than 40 percent each of his first three seasons. 

One thing to watch will be how aggressive either guard is at taking the ball to the basket and looking to free up teammates with penetration. With both teams struggling to meet their preseason expectations, Thursday’s contest provides a spotlight for either senior to remind the college basketball world of their star power. 

Can either team put together a complete game? 

Both Duke and North Carolina have driven their fan bases crazy—in positive and negative ways—this season. For the Blue Devils, extended lapses on defense have forced the team to dig out of big holes time and time again. The Tar Heels have had their own struggles on that side of the floor and are still searching for weapons outside of Berry and Maye on offense. 

With this in mind, the Tobacco Road rivalry figures to be a game of runs. Duke has won three consecutive road ACC games and has been defined by its spurtability for much of the year. The stakes are high considering that a loss could send both teams tumbling down the ACC standings. Expect both teams to be locked in come game time, but don’t expect either to be able to sustain that level of intensity throughout the contest. No lead will be safe Thursday night. 


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