With the first of this year's Tobacco Road matchups between Duke and North Carolina drawing near, the Blue Zone is here to preview each positional battle ahead of Saturday night's tipoff. Previously, we took a look at the backcourt and frontcourt. Now, we preview both teams' wings:
Twenty-one games into the season ahead of its Feb. 5 matchup against North Carolina, Duke’s wing play, especially as of late, is precisely where it needs to be relative to the Tar Heels.
The two wings in the starting lineup, freshman AJ Griffin and junior Wendell Moore Jr., are virtually irreplaceable on the floor for Duke. The players are several of the top-scoring athletes the Duke roster offers and frequently are the force that pushes the Blue Devils to the finish line.
Griffin, a small forward from Ossining, N.Y., only recently began playing in the starting rotation, taking the floor from tip seven games ago against Wake Forest. Having suffered a knee injury in preseason, many predicted that the 6-foot-6 freshman would have a long road before reaching his maximum potential. But he proved himself ready in that game, and despite the added responsibility, the five-star showed his teammates and his coaches that he was there to stay, dropping 22 points against the Demon Deacons.
Having played in every Blue Devil match this season, Griffin’s excellence on the floor will be a driving force to push Duke ahead in its date with North Carolina. Featuring the highest accuracy mark from downtown of any Blue Devil, going 33-of-66 for a 50% mark, the small forward’s offense is Duke’s X-factor when it comes to competing against tough defensive teams.
However, North Carolina isn’t necessarily the most demanding defensive team the Blue Devils will have faced come 6 p.m. Saturday. The Tar Heels average 78.5 points per game to Duke’s 80.4 points. And while the Blue Devils limit their opponents to 64.7 points when they compete, North Carolina only limits its foes to 72.0 points. Along with that, the Tar Heels struggle with blocking and restricting within the key, which means that a player with Griffin's distance threat is icing on the cake unless the Blue Devils struggle getting inside the paint.
Moore is also a small forward, but his role has changed a lot since the beginning of the season. He’s effective at setting picks and dodging on offense, and has versatility on both sides of the ball. Starting off the first 11 games averaging 16.9 points, 5.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists, the junior captain was one of the top offensive contributors for the Blue Devils.
However, in the 10 ACC matchups that Duke has competed in thus far, the Julius Erving Award hopeful isn't scoring at quite the same clip, averaging 11.3 points, but he's still sporting impressive rebound and assist marks. Moore’s role on the team has seen a transition from more of a pounding offensive player to the leadership role of playmaker. Not only can he see his players for drives through the key, but the five-star wing is also one of the top defensive-minded athletes Duke has.
Both Moore’s and Griffin’s defense when a player makes an attempt at the basket is deadly. Paired with frontcourt duo Paolo Banchero and Mark Williams—the tallest players in the starting lineup—many teams that try to defeat the Blue Devils require stealthy offense or athletes who can shoot from beyond the arc. Though Duke does have a trio of losses on its plate, for the most part, the group has been effective in executing its game. With that in mind, it’s fitting that the Blue Devils rank 14th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com.
The Tar Heels, on the flip side, feature the 77th-ranked adjusted defensive efficiency rating, and considering the performance the team has put on this season, that's unsurprising. With six losses on the season, North Carolina has seen more struggles on the defensive end than Duke has. In the ACC specifically, North Carolina has had two major losses, not including a narrow loss to Notre Dame, to Blue Devil cross opponents with 98-76 and 85-57 blowouts courtesy of Wake Forest and Miami, respectively.
For the Tar Heels’ go-to wing, Leaky Black, this means a slightly different role than the one Moore and Griffin have on the Blue Devils. Leading his team with a 2.83 assist-turnover ratio, Black is useful on offense, but that's not where he's the most effective. Instead, the Concord, N.C., native is the best defender from the perimeter North Carolina has. In those two major ACC losses, Black saw no points in either competition. However, when the Demon Deacons or the Hurricanes came to score on the Tar Heels’ basket, Black worked his way around the perimeter with the goal of restriction in mind.
With an opponent like Black on the floor Saturday night, having key wings such as Moore and Griffin will be important. If Black is once again able to work the magic North Carolina needs him to, the two Blue Devil wings will need to be on top of their playmaking and shooting games for Duke to take its latest win in the rivalry.
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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