And then there were four.
All eyes, however, are on two. And those two are located just a few miles apart.
It’s a Final Four matchup of epic proportions. Duke and North Carolina are set to face off for the first time in NCAA tournament history. After splitting their first two matchups, each team losing at home, it’s time for the tiebreaker. The Blue Devils are looking for redemption, and a ticket to the championship, after the ugly loss that ended head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s time in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Tar Heels, however, love to play spoiler for their rivals. What better way to do it than to send Krzyzewski into retirement once and for all?
With everything on the line, and these rivals staring each other down, this Final Four matchup is sure to be one for the ages. Here are five things to look for as Duke and Krzyzewski take on North Carolina one last time.
The Blue Devils fell March 5 to North Carolina in what was hailed as head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s final rivalry matchup. Now, they have a chance to rewrite that ending.
The two previous matchups between these teams could not have looked more different, aside from the fact that neither was close. It was Duke that dominated the first game in Chapel Hill, as freshman wing AJ Griffin led that offensive effort, shooting 11-of-17 from the floor en route to a 27-point performance. The Blue Devils outplayed the Tar Heels in every facet of the game, from shooting percentage to rebounds to downright physicality.
The second game was a completely different story. While Duke led by two at the half, the Tar Heels turned it around halfway through the second. They quickly turned a seven-point second-half deficit to a 13-point victory, with four of their starters hitting 20 points and Brady Manek recording a double-double. Blue Devil fans were left heartbroken while the Tar Heels left Durham victorious. Two days later, North Carolina was ranked in the AP Poll for the first time since November.
Emotions run high in rivalry games. Their endings are often unexpected, their minutes hard-fought, and their stories remembered. This game is sure to be no different, with the added factor of it being the Final Four. Both teams will pour everything they have into these 40—or more—minutes. It likely won’t be a blowout like the first two.
“I think we're going to have two really good teams play against one another,” said Krzyzewski of the matchup. “You can't go into the Final Four just thinking rivalry, payback or any of those things. You got to go in that we want to win a championship.”
Who can stop Manek?
North Carolina forward Brady Manek has driven his team through the tournament thus far. He is averaging 21.5 points per game in the tournament while shooting 47% from three. North Carolina’s lead against Baylor, prior to Manek’s ejection, was largely due to his 26 points with just more than 10 minutes left in regulation. He is the Tar Heels’ X-factor, and he has had Duke’s number all season.
Through two matchups, the Blue Devils have yet to find a solution for Manek. He scored 20-plus points and attempted 10 three-pointers in both. He made six of those attempts in the first meeting and five in the second.
Teams have had successful 3-point shooting outings against Duke all season long, and while its perimeter defense has improved, it is by no means perfect. Michigan State made 11-of-22 trey attempts in the second round, and even though the Blue Devils came out on top, the long ball helped keep the Spartans in it.
For Duke to advance to the championship game, Manek must be contained. Strong perimeter defense to curb the 3-point attack and strong rebounding to limit second-chance points will be important, but so will physicality. Manek is big—6-foot-9, 230 pounds big. The Blue Devils have the size to match up with him. That one-on-one battle will be tough, but it’s one Duke has to win to advance.
Every great team has its hero. For Duke in the tournament, that hero has undoubtedly been Jeremy Roach. The sophomore point guard regained his starting spot just in time for the first round, and has spent every minute proving why he earned it. He is averaging just under 13 points per game through four tournament games and has shown up in big moments.
Roach’s ball-handling and ability to penetrate the paint have been crucial for Duke's offense. He was the first to get points on the board against Arkansas, sidestepping Jaylin Williams for the layup. He assisted a Mark Williams dunk with about three minutes left that extended the lead to 17 and sealed the game for the Blue Devils.
Roach has been that key final piece to the Blue Devils’ puzzle. Their offense looks completely different with him at the helm. His dependable and consistent play pushed Duke past Texas Tech's elite defense, and if he continues to play at this high level, the Blue Devils just might be unstoppable. North Carolina hasn’t seen this version of Roach. He might be just what they need.
Shoot your shot
Duke’s offense has been a force to be reckoned with all season long. Whether it be Griffin draining threes or Paolo Banchero-to-Mark Williams alley-oops, it has been rare to see the Blue Devils struggle to get on the board. The tournament has been no different. Duke has shot above 36.8% or above from long range in each of its four games and dropped 78 points on a Texas Tech team that was only giving up 60 per game. In that Sweet 16 matchup, the Blue Devils shot 71% in the second half to close out the game.
Topping North Carolina’s offense is no small feat. The Tar Heels are averaging 82.5 points per game in the tournament led by a dynamic point guard, an elite shooter and a powerful paint presence in Caleb Love, Manek and Armando Bacot. This game has the potential to be a shootout, and Duke needs to be ready to step up in that regard.
Much of the shooting responsibility falls on Griffin. He tore North Carolina’s perimeter defense to shreds in their first meeting, sinking 3-of-6 shots from beyond the arc for a career-high 27 points. Their next matchup? He only scored five. An electric performance from Griffin is just the juice that Duke needs to overcome its rivals and play for the title.
The closing minutes
In close tournament games, it is the final minutes that define entire seasons. The first 35 dwindle in importance compared to the final five. Games, and legacies, are determined by late-game play, and in the tournament, in those final minutes, the Blue Devils have delivered.
It was a looming uncertainty entering round one: Will this young team be able to step up in those big moments and close out games? Thus far, the answer is a resounding yes. They demonstrated this in the final three minutes against Michigan State, ending on a 20-6 run to send the Spartans packing. Against Texas Tech, the Blue Devils drained their last eight attempts from the field, showing off their clutch play and calm demeanor.
Not only will Duke attempt to close out the game against North Carolina with a win, but the season with a championship. The Blue Devils have already made a deep tournament run, deeper than many thought they would.
"We were in for really tough games against teams that are really good defensively and physical,” said Krzyzewski of Duke’s tournament run. “And they made us better. We had to be better in order to beat them.”
The Blue Devils might just be peaking at the perfect time. A championship takes heart, talent and hard work, traits that Duke has exemplified throughout its last four games. It will need to draw on that reserve to down the Tar Heels.
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