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Five things: Point guard battle looms large for Duke men's basketball against North Carolina

Tre Jones will need to be every ounce the defensive enforcer he has shown himself to be against Cole Anthony.
Tre Jones will need to be every ounce the defensive enforcer he has shown himself to be against Cole Anthony.

Duke will travel eight miles down 15-501 Saturday afternoon, searching for its first victory against Tobacco Road rival North Carolina in Chapel Hill since 2016.

The Blue Devils will look to flip the script one year after the Tar Heels took both regular season matchups. Unranked North Carolina is far from the top-10 power it was a year ago and will be searching for a season-defining victory in the midst of a dismal 2019-20 campaign. Here are five things to watch for when the teams take the court in the Dean Dome.

Heeling over

The Tar Heels enter Saturday’s contest as losers of seven of their last nine contests. North Carolina has struggled to find consistent offense throughout the season, and that problem was magnified during the 11 games point guard Cole Anthony missed due to a knee injury suffered in late November.

The injury bug has hit another top-three Tar Heel scorer in senior Brandon Robinson. The sharpshooting wing has missed six games already this season, including Monday’s defeat in Tallahassee. Robinson has shone in an increased role this season, raising his scoring total from 3.4 to 13.1 points per game. While his status remains uncertain as he deals with an ankle injury, his presence and 35 percent conversion rate from the perimeter could provide a huge boost in the Tar Heels’ chances of getting back in the win column.

King B’s

While North Carolina has been a nonfactor from the perimeter with a dismal 29.6 3-point percentage, Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot have given the Tar Heels one of the strongest frontcourts in the ACC. The duo combines to average more than 25 points and 17 rebounds per contest but went silent in Monday’s loss to Florida State with six points and six rebounds. 

Brooks and Bacot will need to be on their A-game offensively to take down the Blue Devils with Duke’s backcourt pair of Tre Jones and Jordan Goldwire lethal defensively. At 6-foot-9, Brooks could be a candidate for a breakout performance with the Blue Devils struggling to take care of physical forwards. Duke will be helped with the recent return of Wendell Moore Jr., but Matthew Hurt will need to ramp up his defensive intensity in order to earn key minutes Saturday.

Rough road starts

The Blue Devils desperately need to snap a streak of slow starts on the road in order to put away any chance of an upset early. In each of Duke’s last four road contests, the Blue Devils fell behind by at least seven points in the opening half, including facing a dismal 12-2 deficit in the opening minutes Tuesday at Boston College.

Duke has been able to get away with its slow starts due in part of dominant second halves from freshman Vernon Carey Jr. and outstanding free throw shooting at Syracuse and against the Eagles. However, giving the Tar Heel faithful a rare chance to cheer and provide energy to fuel a potential breakout performance from Anthony would not be wise.

Whose floor general is best?

Koby White, Shamorie Ponds and Cassius Winston are just a few of the elite point guards Tre Jones has locked down during his year and a half in Durham. The No. 2 prospect in ESPN’s Class of 2019 rankings, Anthony, arguably could be Jones’ toughest test to date. 

When healthy, the freshman phenom has been the focal point of the Tar Heel offense. Anthony has averaged 19.5 points, 6.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists per contest while taking more than 16 shots per contest. Efficiency has not been Anthony’s strong suit, however, as the 6-foot-3 guard has connected on just 10 of his 36 shot attempts since returning from injury last Saturday against Boston College.

Can Duke snap its losing streak in Chapel Hill?

Home court advantage has been crucial during in the rivalry’s recent history with the Tar Heels winning the last three matchups at the Dean Dome. A loss Saturday would mark the first time the Blue Devils lost four straight in Chapel Hill since Duke had a seven-game losing streak there between 1992 and 1998. 

The Blue Devils have not been immune to the cyclical unranked North Carolina squad over the years. Then-No. 5 Duke fell to the Tar Heels 74-66 in 2014, however, that Tar Heel team recovered to make the NCAA tournament, where it fell in the Round of 32.

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