Duke vs. UNC is the ultimate NCAA basketball rivalry, and never more so than on Saturday night, when the Blue Devils and Tar Heels play for the ACC regular season championship at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.
There are a few game-within-the-game storylines to watch that will go a long way in determining the outcome. The Jimmies and Joes are pretty evenly matched, so I'd like to point out the X's and O's that will determine a contest that should be a one-point spread in Vegas either way.
The last few seasons, Duke has always had the ability to drastically change the look and style of its personnel groupings by simply moving their versatile, hybrid wing Kyle Singler between the four and three spots with every dead ball. Unless teams want to zone, they usually have to match up with Duke size-wise or suffer the mismatch consequences on the defensive end. At the very least, Duke's ability to force you to match up with their personnel hurts opponents offensively because Duke invariably forces you to change who you are as an offense. This factor was supposed to be a key point in the first battle with North Carolina, but Coach Williams did a masterful job against Duke's "small" lineup-three guards and Singler at the four.
So how did the Tar Heels coach keep his big personnel on the floor while holding the talented Duke forward to just 3-17 from the field? He had his big man John Henson play Singler's jumper, had the rest of the perimeter guys hedging defend Singler's driving / midrange game, while betting that if he did somehow get to the cup the Duke forward would struggle to finish over the Carolina trees. More importantly, Coach Williams left his big lineup in to pound Duke on the offensive glass which all but forced Coach K to matchup to Carolina. In summary the winning formula spotted the Heels a fourteen-point halftime was: (1) weather the matchups on the defensive end, and (2) pound the Devils inside with impunity on the other end. Since that formula worked, I suspect you'll see more of it tomorrow.
The X Factor: Kendall Marshall
If the first game was any indication, Coach K is going to try to wear down Kendall Marshall on both ends of the floor. Kendall's fatigue (and Carolina's fatigue overall) was the catalyst in Duke's dominating 50 to 30 second half in the first tilt. With that in mind, I suspect Duke won't allow Marshall to walk the ball up on offense or rest at all on defense. The problem with pressuring Marshall is that if you hug his dribble 30 feet from the bucket and let him blow by and dish to Henson and Zeller for easy dunks, you're asking for trouble.
So Duke is going to do a lot of different things to get Marshall out of his comfort zone by varying pressure. Look for the Blue Devils to try speed up Marshall between the circles and sap the talented lead guard's energy. When UNC is entrenched in its half court offense, the Devils will entice jumpers from Marshall and give plenty of cushion, especially in isolation scenarios or at the end of shot clocks.
On defense, Roy Williams has to find players that Marshall can guard without expending too much energy. Look for Kendall to matchup with Thornton and Curry in situation when Duke's gone big. Under no circumstance should Williams risk foul trouble and fatigue by putting Marshall on Nolan Smith for long stretches.
X Factor, Part II
Dexter Strickland. Unlike the first outing, Dexter Strickland has to have an efficient floor game and be a creator out there to take some pressure off of Marshall as a playmaker. The Tar Heels can exploit the soft underbelly of the Duke frontcourt if both Strickland and Marshall are creating and finding what is perhaps the best finishing frontcourt in all of college basketball. If all of the pressure of running the show is heaped on Marshall's shoulders, the Tar Heels are in trouble because you'll see a barrage of turnovers leading to transition 3's from Duke as fatigue sets in. Strickland and Marshall both have to handle the ball efficiently so they can exploit their team's mismatches along the baseline and avoid another second half collapse.
Singler vs. Barnes
In the first contest, these two talented wings canceled each other out with superb defense. It's a especially tough for Singler if Duke is forced to go big because Barnes is athletic enough to tag Kyle around the perimeter (and thus chasing him off of it), and the Tar Heels frontcourt has such great size that Singler will have a hard time finishing at the rim. If Singler is going to rebound from the disastrous 3 for 17 shooting performance, he's going to have to make his hay when the Blue Devils are small and he's being guarded by a Carolina post.
On the flipside, Barnes will likely be the best perimeter shooter on the floor for the Tar Heels at any given time. He needs to play disciplined in this respect for a couple reasons-quick catch and shoots play away from Carolina's advantage in the paint, and Barnes' shot credibility is going to open driving lanes and opportunities to create for teammates. I'll be interested to see how maturely the young man handles this particular arrow in his quiver. A mature game from Barnes would be a boon for UNC's conference title prospects.
If you watched the first match up, you understand why this may be the most important key. I know a faster tempo is in Roy Williams' DNA, but if Marshall and company are sped up into a 90-foot game, it's going to be lights out for the Tar Heels. Not only will they be overwhelmed by fatigue, they'll be playing their advantage with Henson and Zeller right out of the contest. As already mentioned, Marshall will have to control tempo and not be enticed into running with the Blue Devils unless the numbers are there. If 2-on-1 and 3-on-2 transition is the oasis in the half court desert, then 2-on-2 is the mirage. Back it out, run your stuff, and then body blow the Devils with Henson, Zeller, and Barnes-hoping you hit a solid number from the charity stripe. Fatigue is the enemy here and wasted motion is its ally.
Conversely, if you're Duke, you do everything in your power to increase the number of possessions in this game and artificially speed up the game. Expect to see all sorts of pressure on the defensive end and some quick transition and secondary break shots on the other end, even when the numbers aren't overwhelming. A quick shot by Duke at the very least invites UNC to get out, and run and that's a win for Duke over the long haul. There's no way Duke wants to have Kelly or The Plumli guard Henson, Zeller, and Barnes for 30 seconds per possession.
The eyeball test of these two squads back in February tells me all I need to know. The Tar Heels were on their way to a convincing victory by dictating match ups until fatigue and a ridiculous hot shooting second half by the Dukies nipped them at the wire. UNC's errors are easier to correct and the Blue Devils' blue print for victory is harder to duplicate. I like the Heels, 76-70.