“There’s nothing better than this.”
Dan Schulman, ESPN’s lead college basketball play-by-play commentator, repeatedly leads off the Duke-UNC rivalry with the same statement. Year after year, both matchups feature intensity, drama and memorable moments. When you consider the close proximity of the universities and the consistent excellence by both programs, it's not hard to argue that this is one of the greatest rivalries in sports.
However, despite the memories of past classics between Duke and North Carolina, the No. 7 Blue Devils’ will face off against a Tar Heel team on track to finish with the worst single-season record under Roy Williams. After starting the season No. 9 in the AP poll, North Carolina has just a 10-12 record to this point. Evidently, the Tar Heels have struggled to replace standouts Coby White, Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye after the team was a No. 1 seed in last year’s NCAA tournament.
North Carolina's youth and inexperience has held Williams’ squad from operating the famous secondary break at an efficient level. For decades, the Tar Heels have utilized this transition motion offense to push the tempo on their opponents, working the ball inside with ease and kicking out to shooters. However, the lack of experience within the system has resulted in clunky spacing and sets throughout the season. North Carolina averages only 70.9 points per game on 40.8 percent shooting from the floor.
In recent seasons, North Carolina has relied on skilled big men such as Brice Johnson to pass out of the high and low posts. Highly touted freshman center Armando Bacot has failed to fill a similar role, forcing the Tar Heels to become too dependent on star freshman Cole Anthony. Anthony, who returned from a knee injury last Saturday, has been North Carolina’s sole playmaker off the dribble. With virtually no other players able to get their own shot, and limited movement off the ball, Anthony has been forced to create entirely on his own. Anthony has shown an ability to elevate for deep 3-pointers, and if he gets a favorable switch, he can pose issues for a relaxed defense.
However, with heavy isolation play comes predictability. By overloading the left side of the floor, help defenders can cheat over to the side that Anthony is operating on. This structure has no other options besides an Anthony pull up, as a cross-court pass would get intercepted easily. With poor spacing by the Tar Heels underneath, a second defender can trap Anthony from the baseline, causing a double-clutch and blocked shot.
Defensively, North Carolina is prone to getting picked apart in the pick and roll by losing its depth off of ball screens. Duke would be well-suited to allow Tre Jones to operate the pick and roll with Vernon Carey Jr. early and often. If Jones drives off the screen, corner shooters like Joey Baker and Matthew Hurt can make the Tar Heels pay. North Carolina switches a significant amount, something that Jones looks for frequently. A defense collapsing onto Jones or any experienced point guard will open up great looks on the perimeter.
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Despite all of these flaws, North Carolina will come out ready to play Saturday night. If Carey and Jones can establish a rapport in the screen and roll, the Blue Devils will able to exploit a defense that can be undisciplined at times.
On the other end of the floor, while Anthony can be brilliant at his best, North Carolina is inefficient and too reliant on its talented point guard. Trapping Anthony off screens might prove effective for Duke, as getting the ball out of his hands and making someone else create for themselves is something the Blue Devils can live with.