Amid Duke’s struggles over the last few weeks, its small ball center has continued to shine under the bright lights.
Sophomore Matthew Hurt comes into this matchup against the Tar Heels as one of the top players in the ACC—his 18.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per contest both lead the team, and his scoring far surpasses the numbers put up by North Carolina’s top scorer and frontcourt counterpart Armando Bacot. Hurt is an integral component of Duke’s offense, and has provided a spark for his team as a leader and shooter unparalleled by any player competing in Saturday's matchup.
Hurt specializes as a stretch big, taking the ball into the post and finishing hook shots with finesse and a fadeaway reminiscent of Dirk Nowitzki's signature move. His excellent fadeaway and high release point allow him to avoid contact and blocked shots near the rim. In addition to that, he can really stretch the floor. Hurt is making his threes at a 42% clip, meaning North Carolina’s bigs will be pulled up and out of the paint, creating space for passes inside.
Since North Carolina runs with two traditional bigs, sophomore Bacot and senior Garrison Brooks, Hurt bears his biggest responsibility yet. Hurt's vision and decision making with the ball at the top of the key and in the corners will be a difference-maker in Saturday’s game. The Rochester, Minn., native’s improved skills with the shot fake and pull-up jumpers he showed off in Monday’s loss at Miami could pose problems for Bacot defensively.
On the other end of the floor, Hurt is not the biggest or strongest defender, so he will need to maintain good positioning to avoid surrendering offensive rebounds and easy paint baskets. Bacot and Brooks, both 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds, could each pose matchup problems for the skinnier Hurt down low simply based on measurables.
Bacot and Brooks' inside skills have allowed the duo to combine for 22.4 points and 14.7 rebounds per game, giving the Blue Devils trouble last season as well. There's no doubt Bacot is hungry for his first ever rivalry win and a victory for Brooks would put him a step closer to finishing his career with a winning record against Duke.
The sturdy paint duo are not the greatest athletes, but they always seem to be in the right place to wrestle loose balls from opponents after missed shots. Their tenacity on the glass has propelled North Carolina to third in the nation in total rebounds per game with 42.8, so Duke will have to grind for any second-chance opportunities.
Bacot rarely relinquishes opportunities for putback points, as his 65% shot conversion rate stands nearly 20 percentage points higher than last year. From a shooting efficiency standpoint, Brooks, the ACC Preseason Player of the Year, is playing well below expectations, with his mark from the field taking a nearly nine-point tumble from last year. Despite the decreased efficiency, his senior leadership is more than capable of propelling the younger Tar Heels regardless of his own play.
The frontcourt matchup between each squad’s leading scorer will certainly be one to watch as Duke and North Carolina battle in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle and The Daily Tar Heel's annual rivalry edition. Find the rest here.
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Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity junior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.