When Duke and North Carolina's 2016-17 seasons came to a close, both teams knew what was coming next. Combined, the two sides lost seven starters to the pros, including five first-round NBA Draft picks, and the Blue Devils would have to replace nearly 80 percent of their scoring offense.
Even so, expectations for both teams entering this year remained high—with the Tar Heels coming off a national title and the Blue Devils bringing in yet another top-ranked recruiting class, there was little reason to think otherwise.
But with both ninth-ranked Duke and No. 21 North Carolina not playing up to those standards and their preseason rankings, Thursday night's Tobacco Road rivalry provides the perfect opportunity for both squads to kickstart a winning stretch as both squads dive into the latter half of ACC play. The contest, which tips at 8 p.m. at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, will be the 246th meeting in a series that the Blue Devils have dominated recently, winning 13 of the last 18 battles.
"Whether you’re not ready, you’re sick, whatever, you’ve got to give it up," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said Saturday following his team's shocking loss to St. John's. "It made the loss, because we came back, all the more frustrating.... That is not acceptable. So I will do the things that I have done for 43 years to make sure that the next time we go, we will have an acceptable performance by our Duke team."
For the Blue Devils (19-4, 7-3 in the ACC), the fixes will likely have to start on the defensive side of the ball. After N.C. State shredded Duke's defense in early January, Blue Devil opponents did not muster more than 75 points in seven straight games—that was until this weekend, when the Red Storm erupted for 49 in the second half alone en route to an 81-77 victory.
And though the Tar Heels (17-7, 6-5) have struggled to eclipse the .500 mark in league play, they still boast a top-15 adjusted offensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy with an average of 82.8 points per game.
"We just have to contain the basketball, communicate on defense and you’ve got to play hard," freshman guard Gary Trent Jr. said Saturday. "Guys are going to make some tough shots, of course...[but] you’ll be successful if you do [communicate], and if you don’t, you won’t."
As usual, North Carolina will enter the contest as one of the nation's premier rebounding squads—the Tar Heels lead the ACC in rebounds per game and rank third in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. But perhaps surprisingly, it's Duke in front in the offensive boards category, both in percentage at 41.2 and average total with 14.5 per game.
Obviously, that success is a credit to freshmen big men Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr., both of whom could feast on a smaller-than-usual North Carolina side. If Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams opts to start his "Warrior" lineup with Cameron Johnson at the four and Luke Maye at the five, the hosts will have no player taller than 6-foot-8 on the floor.
Whether it's on the glass or in the scoring column, a big night for the freshman frontcourt tandem is a key to victory for the Blue Devils.
"Even though they run a smaller lineup, they're still the best rebounding team in the conference," Krzyzewski said on the ACC's weekly teleconference Monday. "They can come out with a small and a big lineup—they're just really good, so they present a challenge to anybody and they'll be difficult to defend."
The other battle to watch will take place beyond the arc, a place where both teams have impressed this season. Duke and North Carolina both shoot it better than 37 percent from long distance, but the teams also rank in the bottom half of the league in defending the 3-point line, with the Tar Heels ranking a miserable 313th nationally.
Trent's hot stretch—the freshman is shooting a torrid 62.0 percent on treys in his last seven games—has given a major boost to the Blue Devil backcourt with senior captain Grayson Allen slumping.
But Allen has routinely emerged as a key figure in these rivalry contests, posting performances of 23, 29, 25 and 14 points during his last four regular-season tussles with North Carolina. If that weren't enough, the then-junior added 18 points to help Duke hang with the Tar Heels before the Blue Devils rallied for a win in last year's ACC semifinals.
Allen, like his teammates, will have to put his struggles aside, however, to reemerge as a crucial offensive figure for Duke and continue to be one of North Carolina's worst nightmares.
"In February every year, we're working through issues. They are, too, and there are very few teams not working through issues to get better," Krzyzewski said. "Sometimes, one game can help you if you're really good at some of these things—if you win and if you do those things well, it can give you confidence going further."
Michael Model, Ben Feder and Hank Tucker contributed reporting.
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A junior from just outside Philadelphia, Mitchell is probably reminding you how the Eagles won the Super Bowl this year and that the Phillies are definitely on the rebound. Outside of The Chronicle, he majors in Economics, minors in Statistics and is working toward the PJMS certificate, in addition to playing trombone in the Duke University Marching Band. And if you're getting him a sandwich with beef and cheese outside the state of Pennsylvania, you best not call it a "Philly cheesesteak."