Just more than two weeks ago, Duke hit its low point of the season—rival North Carolina walloped the Blue Devils 88-72 on Duke’s home court, spoiling the most anticipated matchup of the year for the Cameron Crazies. To make matters worse, beloved forward Zion Williamson exited that contest with a knee injury after just 30 seconds of play, and has not played since.
Following the loss to the Tar Heels, No. 4 Duke simply has not been the same dominant team it was for much of the season. On Feb. 26, the Blue Devils fell to then-No. 20 Virginia Tech, and they came embarrassingly close to falling to a subpar Wake Forest squad.
Unlike their counterparts down Tobacco Road, North Carolina has been on a tear recently. The Tar Heels are on a six-game winning streak, and are currently at their high water mark of the season in the AP poll, at No. 3.
Whether or not Williamson suits up is certainly the biggest question heading into Saturday’s rematch. That’s one of the five things to look out for this Saturday at the Dean Smith Center:
To play or not to play?
Although Williamson’s injury looked gruesome, Duke fans were delighted to hear that he was diagnosed with only a Grade 1 knee sprain, and was listed as day-to-day.
14 days have passed since the Spartanburg, S.C., native was listed as day-to-day, and the Blue Devils still await Williamson’s return. Without the 6-foot-7 freshman, Duke is unlikely to be a serious threat in the postseason, as demonstrated in its recent string of shoddy performances. Williamson’s status remains up in the air for the regular season finale, and if he does not play, his first game action will likely be in the ACC tournament.
We saw how much the Blue Devils missed Williamson in their first tilt against North Carolina, and with or without him, their game plan will need to change in order to avoid a second loss.
In the first matchup, it was the Luke Maye show. The Tar Heel power forward put up 30 points and 15 rebounds, and the Williamson-less Duke squad had no answer for Maye inside. Guarded by the likes of Javin DeLaurier and Jack White, Maye consistently outmuscled and outmaneuvered his man the whole night.
Although Maye’s offensive game is not flashy—unless you have a particular affinity for baseline jumpers and layups—he cannot be ignored. If the senior can dominate inside again on Saturday, the Blue Devils will not be in good shape.
Take back the paint
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Duke rarely loses the battle inside—285-pound Williamson and 250-pound Marques Bolden have a size advantage against almost all opponents, and typically overpower opponents on defense. But against North Carolina, the Blue Devils looked overmatched, and the Tar Heels scored 65 points in the point.
While Maye had many of these inside looks, his counterpart at center feasted close to the bucket as well. Garrison Brooks scored a season-high 14 points, and frequently got behind Bolden for easy dunks and layups.
Head coach Mike Krzyzewski benched Bolden for this lackadaisical effort on defense, but the junior center’s defense has rebounded. Bolden will need to continue his strong play of late to avoid a repeat performance from Maye and Brooks.
Don’t let Coby be Kobe
Add Coby White to the list of elite scoring guards to be shut down by Tre Jones. In perhaps the sole positive development from the first meeting between Duke and North Carolina, Jones locked down White, and the Tar Heels’ freshman point guard scored nine points on a paltry 3-for-14 from the field, to go along with six turnovers.
While White certainly is susceptible to disappearing like he did against the Blue Devils, he has shown flashes of greatness. In North Carolina’s two games last week, White was unstoppable, averaging 31 points and six 3-pointers per contest.
Containing White is no easy task, but Jones has consistently proven that he can slow anybody on the perimeter. If Jones can bottle up White, the game will be decided inside.
Keep the eyes on the prize
While exacting revenge on the Tar Heels would certainly taste sweet for Duke, it must not forget that this is the least important game left on its schedule. After Saturday, every game has title implications—next week’s action will determine the ACC champion, and each win after that will lead the Blue Devils to their ultimate goal: a national championship.
Given the relatively insignificant implications of this weekend’s matchup, the biggest victory for each team will be to escape the game with no major injuries. Both Duke and North Carolina have national championship aspirations, and the pair may face off again one or two more times this March.