The Rubber Match

Originally published March 10th, 2017

“There doesn’t have to be a fight, Buck” – Steve Rogers
“It always ends in a fight.” – Bucky Barnes
Captain America: Civil War (2016)

We all knew it was going to end this way. If they split the season series, the basketball gods reject any kind of sister kissing and engineer a way for Duke and Carolina to settle it on the court. I’m sure all of us would have preferred for this to be a final, and as the lower seed, that L is probably hanging around Duke’s neck, but we’ll take what we can get.

Preceded by two close games with each team protecting home court, the grudge match in Brooklyn should be just as competitive. Both teams are seemingly at full strength when playing each other for the first time this season. Carolina was missing do-it-all forward Isaiah Hicks in their trip to Cameron Indoor, and Grayson Allen played, but was visibly hobbled by a bum ankle in Duke’s journey to the Dean Dome. The two teams played only 6 short days ago, Carolina avenging their earlier loss 90-83. This left Duke facing the tall task of being the first team to win four games in four days and win the expanded ACC tournament. So far, so good with victories over Clemson and Louisville while Carolina enjoyed the luxury of a #1 seed and a double bye, securing an easy win over feisty Miami.

This game is big in terms of NCAA seeding for both teams, which seems patently unfair compared with the anguish other teams experience at this time of year. With Kansas’ surprising loss to TCU in the Big 12 tournament, Carolina has an outside chance at the #1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament should they run the table by beating Duke, and the winner of Notre Dame/Florida State. Duke has helped itself by avenging an earlier loss to a very good Louisville team, and is probably firmly on the 4-seed line with a chance to move up. A victory over Carolina could vault them to a low #3 with the potential to reach as high as a 2-seed, should they have enough left in the tank to win the final game and the tournament.

Carolina boasts recently crowned ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson, junior guard and sharpshooter Joel Berry II, the aforementioned Hicks, and senior leadership in Kennedy Meeks and Nate Britt. Jackson is, without question, the most talented and NBA ready player on the team with a do it all skill set, and smooth back to the basket game. Matt Jones will likely draw the assignment of slowing him down, which will likely involve goading him into long jumpers as opposed to forays into the lane. As he has done in the past to try and hide defensive inefficiencies, Coach Krzyzewski has gone to the 2-3 zone from time to time to take pressure off of individual defenders. This leaves the Blue Devils vulnerable to the deep ball, but Carolina only has two players shooting over 35% from deep so it is a calculated risk when taken. However, one of those players is Joel Berry, who is shooting a scorching 43% from three this season. As the last matchup proved, he may be the most important player on the floor, a Carolina point guard tradition that stretches back as far as Ty Lawson and Phil Ford. Duke has struggled all year in defensive sets against the pick and roll, especially against guards who are able to shoot.

This was the case in all eight of Duke’s losses this season:

Kansas – Frank Mason, Jr.
NC State – Dennis Smith, Jr.
Virginia Tech – Justin Bibb
Florida State – Xavier Rathan-Mayes
Louisville – Donovan Mitchell
Syracuse – John Gillon (and a fundamental failure to STOP BALL!)
Miami – Bruce Brown
North Carolina – Joel Berry II

Duke, the preseason #1, has a lineup only goes seven or eight deep. That leaves it susceptible to issues with foul trouble, something they are keen to avoid with their two seniors, Amile Jefferson and Matt Jones, especially. Jefferson is the vocal and emotional leader of the defense, and Jones, a member of the ACC All-Defensive team, draws the other teams toughest assignment more often than not. Jefferson provides the added benefit of having evolved into a semi-reliable low post option with at least two go-to moves on possessions when Duke absolutely needs a basket, while Jones is a knockdown shooter though he has struggle of late. On offense, Jayson Tatum and ACC Player of the Year Runner-Up Luke Kennard are the dual engines that drive Duke’s go-kart, with Grayson Allen and Frank Jackson taking turns as a viable third option. Marques Bolden and Harry Giles are defensive energy and rebounding off the bench, and the rotation basically ends there. The Blue Devils’ goal will be to take advantage of matchup mismatches all over the floor, given that most of their players are essentially position-less, as is the overall trend in basketball countrywide. Getting Kennedy Meeks, Theo Pinson and Isaiah Hicks involved in screen and rolls out on the perimeter for a switch onto a guard, Kennard or Tatum will be the ultimate goal, and when Carolina doesn’t or decides not to switch, they need to hit their shots. Duke shoots 38% from three as a team, four of their five starters shoot at least 35% from distance, with Luke Kennard leading the pack at 43%.

This game has been decided by the three-point and free throw lines in the two previous games and I don’t see this being any different. Duke will need to take approximately 20 to 23 long balls, making at least half of them, to win this game. Should that number skew any lower, their bench production will need to be much improved. Carolina will be focused on getting into the lane, taking advantage of their size and superior rebounding and trying to get Duke’s frontcourt into foul trouble. Both teams are talented, so the game will likely come down to execution in the final four minutes of each half.

Prediction?
DUKE 85
CAROLINA 81

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