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X-factor: Duke men's basketball must win the battle on the glass to get past North Carolina

<p>Zion Williamson will need to make use of his size against the Tar Heels.</p>

Zion Williamson will need to make use of his size against the Tar Heels.

The Blue Devils are in the driver’s seat for their first outright ACC regular season title since 2006. But now the team faces 2019’s first part of the Duke-Carolina rivalry, where anything can happen. The Blue Zone looks at a key player for each team:

Duke: Forward Zion Williamson

Let’s face it—North Carolina is a difficult program to root for. The school let many of its athletes enroll in fake classes, its shade of blue is absolutely horrifying and the team’s coach puts salt in his orange juice. But the Tar Heels do have one thing going for them—they are the No. 1 rebounding team in the country.

Led by forwards Luke Maye and Garrison Brooks, North Carolina averages 42.5 boards per contest. The team also sits fourth nationally in rebound margin, out-rebounding opponents by more than nine per game. This strength could not have been more apparent than the Tar Heels’ biggest win of the season over No. 2 Gonzaga.

North Carolina posted 42 boards that fateful December night in Chapel Hill, double the Bulldogs’ total of 21. If Duke wants to avoid the same kind of upset, it is going to have to keep the Tar Heels’ bigs off the blocks. And who will most likely be tasked with covering Luke Maye—North Carolina’s most talented rebounder—all night? None other than Zion Williamson.

So while it’s typically Zion’s elite scoring ability and otherworldly athleticism that turns heads, the star freshman’s ability to buckle down fundamentally and win the rebounding battle will be a deciding factor in the outcome of Wednesday night’s contest. If he can’t get it done, the Cameron Crazies could be looking at a dismal end to their six-week tenting experience.

North Carolina: Guard Cameron Johnson

Everyone’s heard of Maye, the Tar Heels’ heralded senior forward. Even Coby White and Nassir Little—two freshmen playing within a clear anti-freshmen conglomerate—are household names. But neither of those three are North Carolina’s scoring leader. That title belongs to guard Cameron Johnson.

Johnson has flown completely under the radar as a lethal outside scoring threat—the Moon Township, Pa., native sits among the top in the nation in three-point percentage, hitting 47.9 percent of his shots from deep. And when opponents are hitting threes, that’s bad news for Duke.

Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett will likely be the two defenders tested with containing Johnson Wednesday night. Both freshmen, however, can easily be caught sleeping at times on defense. And if North Carolina’s three-point marksman is feeling it, the Tar Heels’ second-ranked scoring offense will be extremely tough to contain. 

Johnson’s ability to hit shots from beyond the arc has a direct correlation with North Carolina’s success as a team. Against Gonzaga, the current grad student hit six of his eight threes. In the team’s recent loss to No. 3 Virginia, he went a measly 2-for-7 from downtown.

And in the end, which form of Johnson the Tar Heels get Wednesday night could make or break their hopes of winning in Cameron for the first time since 2016.


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