It’s Duke-North Carolina for the third time this season and for the first time in NCAA tournament history. Before the two blue-blood rivals face off in the actual final installment of the Coach K era, the Blue Zone brings a player from each team that can be the difference:
Duke: AJ Griffin
It feels only fitting that the hero of Duke’s victory against North Carolina at the Dean Smith Center be the hero here.
The freshman sharpshooter, widely lauded for his athleticism and ability from downtown, has seen an inconsistent season at large but has stepped up when it counts. North Carolina can tell you all about that, as his career-best 27-point, 11-of-17 showing in Chapel Hill the first time the Blue Devils and Tar Heels faced off helped his team storm to a 20-point demolition and leave the Dean Smith Center in shocked silence.
That seemed like it would be the White Plains, N.Y., native’s breakthrough game, and while in a sense it was given the stage, he struggled to replicate those admittedly ridiculous numbers in subsequent games. After a non-impactful two-point performance in Duke’s home loss to Virginia in early February, he’s hit double-digit points in 12 games since and maintained a remarkable 43.2% clip from deep. As is the case for any player with the national spotlight and attention Griffin has had on him, expectations are through the roof for Griffin in New Orleans to deliver a performance worthy of his legendary coach’s final year.
In games where the projected lottery pick has been quiet or shut down due to impressive perimeter defense, Duke has struggled. Against Virginia Tech in the ACC tournament final in Brooklyn last month, for instance, the Blue Devils’ most reliable perimeter outlet was snuffed out and limited to a 1-of-8 mark from distance, forcing his team to drive into the paint. Of course, Duke is exceptionally good at that, but when it’s the only option it becomes much easier to defend.
On the other side of the coin, though, it points to the influence and sway Griffin has in his side’s ability to win games. When he’s lethal from three, Duke wins. When he charges confidently into the key, Duke wins. When he is tenacious on defense and uses his natural athleticism to outhustle and outwork his opponents, Duke wins. If Griffin is sharp and hits his shots–like against Arkansas in the Elite Eight–he can decide games for this group. He did it once against the Tar Heels already. Now, let’s see if he can do it again under even brighter lights.
North Carolina: Brady Manek
There have been many stars in North Carolina’s late season renaissance, from statistical all-time ACC rebound leader Armando Bacot to a resurgent and confident Caleb Love. Brady Manek, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma, however, is different gravy.
Tar Heel fans will be eager to remind Blue Devil fans that Manek drained five triples and was one of four players to eclipse 20 points against Duke in Coach K’s final home game. He was almost unguardable in both outings against the Blue Devils during the regular season, amassing 41 points and 17 rebounds between them, and has not seen that form slow down in the slightest once March hit.
In the four games Manek has partook in this tournament, he’s registered one double-double, logged 32 rebounds and scored 86 points. That doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that he was ejected from North Carolina’s overtime win against No. 1-seed Baylor with almost half of the second period left either. Manek has hit his hot streak at the absolute perfect time and against the perfect teams–Baylor and UCLA, specifically–to prepare him and his group for perhaps the most important and high-profile game in NCAA history.
In many ways, Manek and Griffin are very similar. They rely heavily on their accuracy from beyond the arc, are streaky in their scoring pursuits and show up in big games for their teams. One could argue that Manek has done that more consistently than Griffin and more so in the NCAA tournament, and because of it remains an obvious threat to a storybook ending for the Tar Heels’ noisy northern neighbors. One thing is for certain: this will be a game for the ages and one where the players who step up will forever etch their name in college basketball lore.
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