The rivalry is back.
Duke will host North Carolina in Koskinen Stadium Thursday evening in what will mark the first Tobacco Road rivalry matchup of the fall sports season. So far this year, while the stat sheets tell a story of two efficient offenses who create and finish good looks at the net, a more broad look at the dynamics of the two teams shows how they’ll challenge each other to be at their best offensively when paired against each other.
Let’s start with the numbers. Both teams have similarly impressive shots on goal percentages, with Duke at .500 and North Carolina at 0.476. Their conversion rates are equally notable, with Duke at .306 and the Tar Heels just below at 0.288 heading into Thursday. Their offenses are both undoubtedly skilled and will pose any opponent’s back line with a hefty challenge, but the dynamic between these two teams specifically is one to watch.
From an observational standpoint, Duke’s offense shines most in transition situations; it can get the ball down the field quickly, but then it prefers to slow down to find the best look possible instead of sacrificing shot quality for a faster goal. Enter North Carolina, whose defense shines most in transition situations and doesn’t allow other teams to slow down and control their offense. The Tar Heels have a stronger back four than any team Duke has encountered so far this season, so Thursday will mark the first big test for the efficiency and ability of the Blue Devils’ offense to adapt.
“I think making sure that we close [North Carolina] down in transition is really, really important,” Duke head coach Robbie Church said Tuesday. “We have to make sure that once we have the ball, that we do a really good job of covering them up, so if we lose a ball, they’re not open and we’re scrambling to cover them up.”
And while we’ll see a matchup of Duke and North Carolina’s strengths—Duke’s smart offense and North Carolina’s quick defense—the other half of the field will highlight where both teams start to crumble. Communication mishaps and misplays in Duke’s defense has allowed other teams to get good looks in transition throughout the season, which recently culminated in a loss against UCLA at home.
“The best defense,” Church said of the Blue Devils, “is keeping the ball and playing offense with it.”
“We must keep the ball, similar to what we did against UCLA. And we’re capable of doing that. That’s gotta be our challenge. So, if we have the ball, there’s no transition defense.”
On the other hand, despite how impressive North Carolina looks on paper, its offensive efficiency isn’t what it was in previous seasons. They’re skilled at getting to the goal, but for as good as this offense could be, the Tar Heels should be getting more shots in the back of the net. So even if North Carolina gets through holes in Duke’s back four, the Tar Heels may not be able to capitalize on scoring at the end of these fast plays.
Thursday on paper looks to be a battle of the offenses, but North Carolina’s defense won’t let Duke’s forwards shine that easily. Both teams will ultimately be tested on both sides of the field, and both will come out better because of it. It’s not often that two teams’ strengths match up so well, setting up a match that could define the momentum of the season for both parties.
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Leah Boyd is a Pratt senior and a social chair of The Chronicle's 118th volume. She was previously editor-in-chief for Volume 117.