Column: Duke men's basketball has questions to answer. North Carolina is the game to do it

<p>Duke freshmen Kyle Filipowski (30) and Dereck Lively II (1) during a win in Durham.</p>

Duke freshmen Kyle Filipowski (30) and Dereck Lively II (1) during a win in Durham.

Every Duke-North Carolina game dating back to the origins of the rivalry has had a heightened level of competitive flare. But this one is different. 

It’s Duke’s first chance at redemption after the Tar Heels dealt two crushing blows last season, one in former head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last home game and one in the Final Four. It is Jon Scheyer’s first opportunity to gain the upper hand on his North Carolina counterpart, Hubert Davis. And, maybe most importantly, this year’s game sits within a crucial five-game stretch in the Blue Devils’ schedule in which they can prove whether they have the answer to some season-long questions plaguing this team.

For starters, can Duke stop the one-step-forward, one-step-backward dance that it did almost all of January? Alternating wins and losses is a recipe for early ACC and NCAA tournament exits, but that has been the harsh reality of much of conference play for the Blue Devils.

Fortunately for Duke, it gets a crack Saturday at North Carolina, and that matchup is the perfect opportunity to rid itself of the consistently inconsistent label. Almost every season has a moment that, when all the dust settles, can be looked at as the turning point. This game is going to be looked back on as that moment, for better or worse, for the Blue Devils.

Several times over the last month, it looked like Duke had its moment. The Blue Devils had a gritty 11-point comeback win against Pittsburgh Jan. 11, but then lost to Clemson three days later. They followed that loss up with a marquee win against then-No. 17 Miami, but couldn’t keep the momentum rolling in Blacksburg, Va., and fell to Virginia Tech.

Now, Duke is riding high off back-to-back wins against Georgia Tech and Wake Forest and has a legitimate opportunity for a staple win Saturday to mark its turning point.

The calendar is getting closer to March, so if the Tobacco Road rivalry isn’t enough to motivate Duke to get a statement win and go on a run, then what will be? 

On a more micro level, Duke has another important question to answer: Who is going to be the go-to No. 2 option on offense behind Kyle Filipowski?

Filipowski has been nothing short of phenomenal this year. His scoring and rebounding have largely been the reason the Blue Devils have snuck away with some of the nail-biting wins they have. But if anything has become clear in recent weeks, it is that Filipowski alone is not enough. Even with his efficient 9-of-17 clip from the field for 29 points against Virginia Tech, the Hokies still managed to come out on top. 

A number of different players have made their case to fill that role, but no one has done so on a consistent enough basis. Jeremy Roach is averaging 12.2 points per game, but his toe injury forced him to miss crucial ACC matchups so I am not ready to crown him the second option, despite his 21-point clinic against Wake Forest. Freshman Dariq Whitehead has come on strong in ACC play and was on his way to his best offensive game against Virginia Tech, but his leg sprain will sideline him for an unclear amount of time.

Dereck Lively II and Mark Mitchell have both shown potential too, but the former still has some development to undergo on the offensive side and the latter has only had four double-digit scoring performances in Duke’s last 10 games. 

That leaves us with Tyrese Proctor, who I think is Duke’s best option as the No. 2 scorer. He is playing his best basketball of the season right now, and while his efficiency does need to improve, Proctor has been there late in games for the Blue Devils when they were in need of points. 

On a positional basis, the Tar Heels present a great, but incredibly difficult, opportunity to prove how the Blue Devils are going to handle dominant bigs. Scheyer has had a juggling act all year of trading off between Lively and graduate transfer Ryan Young at center, and North Carolina’s Armando Bacot will force him to continue doing that. 

The issue so far has been that having Lively on the floor means giving up something on offense, and having Young on the floor means giving up something on defense. North Carolina has been sitting at or close to the top of the ACC in points per game for the whole year, so Duke is going to need offense. The flip side of that, though, is that Bacot is the Tar Heels’ leading scorer, so the Blue Devils will need someone to stop him from having a massive night. 

If Young and Lively can figure out the right combination of production and minutes to both stifle Bacot’s scoring and give Duke offense from the center position, the ceiling of this team changes dramatically. 

A loss against North Carolina doesn’t mean the season is over. But it would once again be another failed opportunity at turning a corner and more likely than not, would mean that the same questions that lie unanswered now will remain that way when the clock expires in Duke’s final game of the season, whenever that may be. 

Editor's note: This article is one of many in The Chronicle and The Daily Tar Heel's annual rivalry edition. Find the rest of The Chronicle's coverage here, and follow along with the full Rivalry Challenge here.

Jake C. Piazza

Jake Piazza is a Trinity senior and was sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.


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