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Then and now: How has Duke men's basketball changed since its first matchup with UNC?

Freshman Mark Williams has made great strides in recent weeks, and his emergence is going to be a new factor in the second edition of this year's Tobacco Road rivalry.
Freshman Mark Williams has made great strides in recent weeks, and his emergence is going to be a new factor in the second edition of this year's Tobacco Road rivalry.

With Duke making the short trip to Chapel Hill in its last regular season game, it’s time to dive into the film and numbers to see how the Blue Devils look in comparison to their first matchup with the Tar Heels. 

Duke’s first match-up with North Carolina was one of its many heartbreaking losses this season, with the Blue Devils falling 91-87 and squandering a chance to tie the game in its final moments. It was a hard fought battle, but Duke ultimately lost largely due to its inability to stop the Tar Heel freshman guards, its struggles in the foul department and forward Matthew Hurt’s season-low performance. 


North Carolina freshmen won the duel

In their first matchup this season, freshmen guards Caleb Love and Kerwin Walton made Blue Devil fans sick. Love posted a career-high 25 points and Walton tallied 12 points of his own, shooting a perfect 4-for-4 from 3-point range. These two torched Duke all night, shooting a combined 8-for-9 from beyond-the-arc in what was an uncharacteristically efficient team performance from the land of plenty for North Carolina.  

On the Duke side, its freshman guards stepped up to some extent, with Jeremy Roach and DJ Steward scoring 16 and 11 points, respectively, but neither of them had one of the exceptional performances that go down in Tobacco Road rivalry history. Both shot a respectable 50% from the field, but as you can see in the videos below, they were overshadowed by their Tar Heel counterparts stuffing the stat sheet on the other end of the floor. 

Matthew Hurt’s slow night

Sophomore forward Matthew Hurt is one of Duke’s most experienced players, and he has led his team with consistent scoring all season. Against North Carolina, however, Hurt had his only single-digit scoring performance all season, notching just seven points. 

The Tar Heel big men had a large role in shutting down the Blue Devils’ go-to player, and with four forwards standing at 6-foot-10 or taller, Hurt had to deal with legitimate size in his defenders. A large part of his game involves being able to shoot over opponents, however, it was extremely difficult for him to do so against North Carolina. The Tar Heels’ size prevented Hurt from recovering any offensive rebounds as well, eliminating his potential for the put-back buckets that he so often has. 

Foul trouble

In addition to these struggles, foul trouble was the icing on the powder-blue cake in the first matchup between these two teams. 

Duke committed 18 fouls, allowing the Tar Heels to go 13-of-22 from the charity stripe while the Blue Devils shot just seven free throws all night. North Carolina’s deadly combination of ball-handling in the backcourt and veteran talent in the paint created many open looks for the Tar Heels, forcing Duke players to rush to the open man, and it often resulted in a Tar Heel at the free throw line.

Hurt was one of several Blue Devils who fell victim to North Carolina’s flowing offense, and when he fouled out with four minutes remaining in the game, it left Duke without its premier scorer for crunchtime. 


Improved defense against guards

Duke’s backcourt has significantly more experience dealing with talented guards now than it did during its first showdown with the Tar Heels. The Blue Devils have faced some of the most talented guards in the ACC twice in Louisville’s Carlik Jones and Georgia Tech’s Jose Alvarado. Although Jones dominated Duke in both of their matchups, the Blue Devils showed improvement against Alvarado, holding him to just 10 points Tuesday night after allowing him to score 26 in the first matchup. 

If the Blue Devils are to win in Chapel Hill this Saturday, it starts with shutting down Love and Walton. 

Matthew Hurt’s growth

Hurt has been a prolific scorer all year, and was riding a lot of positives entering his first game with the Tar Heels. But he has risen to a new level recently, posting a career-high 37 points in the loss to Louisville last Saturday and scoring an impressive 22 against Virginia. Hurt’s ability to score against the Cavaliers is also important for this matchup with North Carolina because it demonstrated his ability to score against size, as Virginia boasts two of the best forwards in the ACC in Jay Huff and Sam Hauser. 

New look inside

Duke was undermanned in the paint against UNC in their first matchup, causing many cheap fouls and letting the Tar Heel big men have their way. But the Blue Devils have a new weapon this time around: Mark Williams.

Williams will be a huge difference-maker in this matchup because he gives the Blue Devils an answer when they need to slow down UNC’s big men. Standing at 7-foot, Williams brings length that can make life hard for opposing centers and forwards, both because of his shot-blocking ability and efficiency on the offensive end, the latter of which you can see in the video below.  


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