Sunday marked the 25th anniversary of one of the great games in the storied rivalry between North Carolina and Duke. February 2, 1995 gave us Jerry Stackhouse’s stupendous reverse dunk and Jeff Capel’s mid-court shot to push the game to double overtime at Cameron. Favored UNC ultimately prevailed 102-100, but what a game! That Tar Heel team was good enough to make the Final Four. Those Blue Devils, playing without coach Mike Krzyzewski in the year of his medical sabbatical, won just two conference games all season. But that night they nearly took down a team with Stackhouse, Rasheed Wallace, Donald Williams, Antawn Jamison, and Serge Zwikker. Such is the history of this series.
UNC and Duke have been playing basketball for a full century now, but the rivalry has reached a completely new level during the era of Hall of Fame coaches Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, and Roy Williams. The last three decades have brought amazing balance in this series. In fact, ESPN reports that over the past 100 games, UNC has won 50 and Duke has won 50. And get this – each program has scored EXACTLY 7,746 points in those 100 games!
Perhaps Tar Heel fans can find hope in all this history. Based on 2020 performance alone, Saturday’s matchup looks pretty one-sided.
A new losing streak – even with Cole
Oh the irony! North Carolina finally seemed to turn the corner on the season with impressive wins against Miami and NC State. Then Cole Anthony returns, looking remarkably fit after missing six-plus weeks following knee surgery. And the Tar Heels revert to losing again. Analytics might suggest that a team which struggled most of January playing without Cole, but improved toward the end of the month, shooting a combined 53.9% in the two wins, would be that much better in February when Anthony rejoined the team. It hasn’t worked out that way so far. Nothing against analytics, but UNC at the moment looks more like a case study in the science of chemistry.
During Anthony’s absence, Leaky Black logged most of the minutes at point guard. Black is not a natural at this position, but the offense eventually began to click with good ball movement, strong post play by Garrison Brooks, and timely outside shooting by Brandon Robinson – and no doubt his ankle injury Saturday night was yet another blow to a team that has lost 70 man games to injury. Now re-enter Anthony, who accounted for 11 of those missed games. Anthony, of course, is a natural point guard, but a ball dominant point guard. The offense looks entirely different with him running the show. Apparently it’s going to take time for the Tar Heels to get reacclimated to Anthony’s style of play, and more importantly for Anthony to recognize that his team grew up a bit while he sat, and that players like Brooks, Armando Bacot, Andrew Platek, and Black need to get the ball in positions where they can score.
Cole’s return should bring with it a huge upside for this team. He excels at attacking the basket and creates opportunities for teammates on his drives, as well has for himself. He shoots the three as well as any current Tar Heel not named Robinson. He gets to the free throw line. He makes sensational jaw dropping plays at times. Yet on some other trips downcourt he tries to do too much while teammates stand and watch. And there are some possessions where the offense as a whole lacks urgency in getting something established; the dwindling shot clock forces a bad shot or a turnover. In short, the offense is not now clicking.
One force at work here is that Anthony, having missed so much of the season, wants to make up for lost time. He put up 23 shots against Florida State and 14 against Boston College. Many of those 37 attempts were high-percentage shots that did or didn’t go in. Some were not high-percentage shots. Anthony and his teammates need a better balance in shot distribution. For example, players could set more screens to give Cole better looks at the basket. He in turn could be more assist conscious – just three against Florida State.
But remember, no one in UNC’s starting five played a starring role last season. Robinson saw spot duty coming off the bench, and while he really developed as a player this season during December and January, he will now miss one to three more weeks with the ankle injury. Brooks started last season but was typically the fourth or fifth option on offense. Platek saw limited duty as did Black, and remember Leaky missed much of 2019 due to injury. Grad transfers Christian Keeling and Justin Pierce were starters at their mid-major schools, but they weren’t playing ACC level competition. Jeremiah Francis has not played a full season because of injuries since his sophomore year in high school. Bacot, like Anthony, was a McDonald’s All American, but it’s a big jump from high school to UNC for a post player. In sum, the departure of so much firepower from 2019, as well as injuries in 2020, have thrust some would be role players into starting positions. Brooks has really come on this season, was playing as well as any big man in the ACC until the last two games. Robinson was playing quite steadily until his injury. The others run hot and cold, but don’t consistently hit double figures. If UNC is to have success these final five weeks, Anthony, with help from the coaching staff, has to figure out how best to make his teammates productive, as well as to showcase his own skills.
UNC by the numbers
North Carolina has improved defensively. Though the Tar Heels were badly hurt by Derryck Thornton’s ability to drive past them late in the BC game, Roy Williams’ team has put together four decent defensive games in a row. Monday night’s effort against Florida State stood out. The Tar Heels held the Seminoles to 41% from the floor and forced 18 turnovers. Here’s what the UNC resume looks like in ACC games, with ACC ranking as well as stats.
-Field goal defense: No. 6 (42%)
-3-point defense: No. 8 (33%)
-Blocked shots: No. 11 (2.73 per game)
-Steals: No. 9 (5.9 per game)
-Turnovers forced: No. 13 (11.36 per game)
-Defensive Rebounding Percentage: No. 3 (76.6%)
This team is doing a better job of contesting shots. Carolina needs improvement in the middle categories – blocking shots, making steals, and forcing turnovers. The steals figure might be okay if the Tar Heels were forcing more deadball turnovers, but they actually get more live ball turnovers and not enough of either. More steals and blocked shots could create some badly needed transition chances. This team does not push the ball nearly as much as Williams prefers and has to play more halfcourt offense-where it often struggles. The defensive rebounding percentage, 76.6%, should get better with Anthony’s return. He is an excellent defensive rebounder for a guard – he actually led the team in rebounds at Florida State.
Offense is where Carolina needs help most.
-Field-goal percentage: No. 8 (41.8%)
-3-point shooting: No. 13 (29.8%)
-Free-throw shooting: No. 13 (65.9%)
-Assists: No. 4 (14.82 per game)
-Assist/turnover ratio: No. 6 (1.11)
-Offensive rebounding percentage: No. 1 (34.3%)
The field goal percentage stat may be skewed somewhat by the high percentage looks Brooks, Robinson, and sometimes Bacot were getting in late January. Certainly the last two games have been way down: 36% against Boston College and 30% against FSU. Three-point shooting has been an issue all season, and likely won’t improve while Robinson remains out. Free throw shooting must be more consistent. Brooks went 17-18 in early January but missed all seven of his attempts against BC. Anthony went 14-14 against the Eagles but made just 3-8 against FSU. UNC remains one of the league’s best at sharing the ball, though the Heels recorded just nine assists in each of the last two games. The assist/turnover ratio would be improved by better care of the basketball. UNC commits 13.36 turnovers per game; only Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, and Virginia are worse. Note here that turnovers are down since Anthony’s return; the Heels committed just nine against FSU which leads the league in turnovers forced. The offensive rebounding percentage leads the league, but UNC needs to convert more of its second chance opportunities.
On balance, North Carolina carries a significant statistical disadvantage in its matchup with Duke Saturday, in addition to its challenges with chemistry.
Devils back at full strength
Wendell Moore broke his hand at Miami early in 2020. Duke played the rest of January without him and lost two games. Moore returned February 1 at Syracuse and helped the Blue Devils to road wins against the Orange and then the Boston College Eagles Tuesday night. Moore scored just 12 points in the two games, but Duke doesn’t need him to score. His value comes from his well-rounded skills; he defends, rebounds, and sets up his teammates.
For scoring, the Blue Devils count most on two players, big man Vernon Carey and point guard Tre Jones. Both rank among the ACC’s top 20 in conference games, with Carey netting 16 points per contest, while Jones typically gets 14. Beyond these two, one never knows which Duke player will get the hand hot. Sometimes Cassius Stanley can take over a game. But often it’s a bench player that makes the timely contribution. Against Syracuse, Alex O’Connell hit double figures as Duke piled up 27 bench points in a 97-88 victory. Against BC, Joey Baker saved the day. Carey, who kept Duke in contention during a very cold first half, picked up his fourth foul early in the second stanza, with the Blue Devils down four. Baker comes in and promptly sticks a jump shot. Moments later, he drives to the basket and gets fouled for an old-fashioned three-point play. Then with Duke still trailing by four, Baker gets the modern 3, hitting a jumper from beyond the arc. That 3, by the way, extended the program’s streak of making at least one from beyond the arc to 1,081 consecutive games. Baker also picked up a steal during his 13-minute stint, his eight points energizing a team that scored just 21 in the first 20 minutes. After Baker’s burst, Carey returned, Jones got going, and Duke picked up a hard-earned 63-55 win.
Any player in Duke’s 10-man rotation is capable of contributing as Baker did Tuesday night. Stanley, Moore, Matthew Hurt, Jack White, Javin DeLaurier, and Jordan Goldwire (especially on the defensive end) can all change the outcome of a game. The unknown of which Duke player will come up big on a given night is what makes this team so difficult to defend and prepare for. Now that Moore has returned in a big way – he logged 54 minutes in his first two games back – the Blue Devils are even more dangerous.
Duke by the numbers
Even after Tuesday night’s defensive battle at BC, Duke leads the ACC in most offensive categories.
-Scoring: No. 1 (81.45 points per game)
-Scoring margin: No. 1 (+15.64)
-Field-goal percentage: No. 1 (49.8%)
-Three-point shooting: No. 3 (35.9%)
-Free-throw shooting: No. 11 (69.4%)
-Assists: No. 1 (16.3 per game)
-Offensive rebounding percentage: No. 2 (32.4%)
Most of these are self explanatory. The Blue Devils push the pace and make shots. Only Louisville and Florida State are better from beyond the arc. Like U of L and FSU, Duke boasts multiple 3-point threats. The free throw number does not impress, but note the Devils have improved. They were dead last in the league shooting 59% at one point in mid-January. The assist total starts with Jones, of course, who gets six per game. But there are lots of good passers on this Duke team, including Carey from the post. As for offensive rebound percentage, UNC is a couple of ticks better, but 32% is impressive considering that half the time, Duke doesn’t need a second shot.
Defensively Duke also excels.
-Scoring defense: No. 4 (65.8 points per game)
-Field-goal defense: No. 4 (41%)
-Three-point defense: No. 1 (26.9%)
-Blocked shots: No. 2 (5.27 per game)
-Steals: No. 1 (8.0 per game)
-Turnovers forced: No. 2 (15.0 per game)
-Defensive rebounding percentage: No. 8 (69.7%)
These numbers are about as impressive as Duke’s offensive stats. The scoring defense average is exceptional, considering the tempo at which Duke plays. Mike Krzyzewski has always valued the field goal defense stat – 41% is very good, especially when you consider the other things this team does defensively: defend the three-spot (UL star Jordan Nwora did not make one three against Duke), block shots, and make steals. The Blue Devils force 15 turnovers per game, more than half of them live ball turnovers that lead to offense. Duke’s one weakness is defensive rebounding. Opponents get second shots 30% of the time.
So Duke is a statistical juggernaut, a 10-man team with interchangeable parts. UNC, on the other hand, endured its first ever six game ACC losing streak. The Tar Heels then won a couple of games, but now need to work through Cole Anthony’s return. Anthony takes the blame for the FSU loss and acknowledges that he shot too much. Can he and his teammates get on the same page against Duke? The defensive pressure of Jones and Goldwire will make it more difficult for Anthony to find his teammates; but he needs to do a better job of that than he has done in his first two games back.
Duke has the edge Saturday in both the analytics and in the area of on court cohesion. But sometimes in this series, there are surprises. Like February 2, 1995.