What is billed as “Senior Night” in gymnasiums around the country should more appropriately be called “Freshman Night” at Cameron Indoor, as it will likely be the final game in Durham for Duke’s trio of one-and-dones, Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., and Gary Trent Jr.
There’s also the matter of bidding Grayson Allen adieu, though almost no one outside of Durham will be sad to see him go.
Saturday’s game will likely be the final time that Duke’s heralded, if underwhelming, freshman class takes the court together for a regular-season game, and it will be the Tar Heels’ mission to spoil the night they’ve worked all these weeks and months for.
Before the season started, I had picked the Duke-Carolina series to go one-and-one, with each team winning on their opponent’s court. The Heels dashed that prediction, though, with their 82–78 win at the Smith Center less than a month ago. And while I’d like to posit that my prognostication will sustain, I don’t see the Heels completing a season sweep of the Blue Devils.
Should they, however, it would mean a two-game losing streak for Duke and a slight tumble in the national rankings, though homers nationwide no doubt would still find a way to argue for Duke nabbing a one-seed.
On the other end, if Duke wins, it could spell major trouble for the Heels, sending them reeling from a two-seed in next week’s ACC tournament to potentially as low as a fourth-seed.
Either way, someone is going to leave Cameron with a two-game losing streak heading to Brooklyn.
Here are three ways the Tar Heels can ensure it isn’t them.
1. Keep the Blue Devils off the glass
Carolina is ranked seventh and ninth in offensive and defensive rebounding, respectively. While this year’s team is an outlier in the Roy Williams era—that is to say, one that relies more on their outside game to score points—they remain true to their annual identity as some of America’s elite rebounders. On the offensive side of the ball, putback buckets are going to be valuable in every stage of the game, as this contest will likely boil down to a single possession. On the defensive side, keeping the ball out of the hands of Bagley and Carter Jr. down low can keep Duke’s putbacks to a minimum, affecting their pace of play.
In the end, this game will be won by the team that takes their opponent off their game more. If Carolina can hit from range, they leave Cameron with a W and a season sweep of their hated rivals. If Duke can rebound and score inside, they can carry Bagley, Trent Jr., and Carter Jr. out on their shoulders, a picture-perfect ending to their long and storied careers in Durham.
2. Get Allen into early foul trouble
Everyone knows what happens when things don’t go Grayson Allen’s way. Some call it emotion, most call it immaturity. Whatever it is, it no doubt has a major impact on his game. If the Heels can force Allen into two early fouls and some preemptive bench time, they stand a much better chance of keeping his rhythm at bay. And now that he’s the one-guard, this would force Duke to look elsewhere for a floor captain.
Of course, Allen is too good to keep down for forty minutes, especially in a game that means what this one does. He’ll get his at some point. The Heels just have to mitigate how much of it he gets. They can do so by frustrating him while on the floor and forcing Coach K to take him off of it.
3. Disrupt the little things
The details have been Duke’s Achilles’ heel this season. If Carolina can force Duke into some early mental mistakes—a five-second violation, a few early turnovers, a stupid foul or an uncharacteristic travel—the Blue Devils will begin to spread at the seams.
Each of Duke’s losses this year carried the theme of five guys playing five different games, leading to poor communication and lots of mental errors. If the Heels can be the spark that lights the fire that melts this team down, they can head to Brooklyn with that coveted second seed.
At this point, I was going to send it over to my inimitable colleague Timothy Bracy, as he’s been covering the Blue Devils for this very blog over the course of the season. We were going to trade in a pithy back and forth some statistical analysis and predictions as to why our chosen squads would win this season’s ultimate matchup. It would be replete with as much trash talk as there would be insight. It was going to be fun.
That was until he texted me informing that Washington, D.C., where he’s at currently, is out of power courtesy of this wind storm and he won’t be able to file anything alongside my ramblings.
So consider this my Leftwich-ian turn, my moment to shine, where I put the team on my back and carry us to victory. Or something like that.
Anyway, here are three reasons why Duke, a team I have not spent nearly enough time watching this season, might even the season series at home.
1. Duke’s defense is so hot right now
Since their loss in Chapel Hill, Duke has been playing extremely good defensive basketball. They currently rank thirtieth in the nation in defensive efficiency, holding opponents in that stretch to a meager fifty-seven points per game.
They’re going to need such defensive chops if they want to keep Carolina below their 87.6 ppg average since their last meeting.
Against Duke, teams are having a tough time scoring from anywhere, and given Carolina’s disposition to become a one-dimensional, deep-shot team, Duke’s defense might have the all-around prowess to completely shut the Heels down.
2. Duke rarely loses two in a row. Duke rarely loses at home.
These dubious stats are often the provenance of baseball writers, wherein they need something to talk about during the doldrums of an afternoon of nine-man standaround, thus they dig up that a certain batter has never singled off a left-handed pitcher when batting fourth in the order during a July day game. These talking points often don’t matter and are used to fill space (which is precisely what I’m doing right now).
That is to say, these stats are meaningless.
Except when it’s Duke-Carolina. Except when your gymnasium is full of the loudest, most raucous fans in the country, creating the most intimidating and difficult atmosphere in which to play.
These stats matter to the Cameron Crazies. That Duke just dropped a heartbreaker to Virginia Tech, that this will be their last home game this season, that the hated Heels are in the gym, that they’ve already beaten Duke once this year, that a second seed in the ACC tournament is on the line, that there are few better at preparing his teams for must-win situations than Coach K—all of that matters.
3. It’s Grayson Allen’s last game at Cameron!
It’s safe to say that while almost no one in America likes Grayson Allen, Duke fans love the guy. He’s been a staple for four years (a rarity in Durham) and has provided some of Duke’s most electrifying guard play since Kyrie Irving left for the NBA.
Both the Blue Devils and the Cameron Crazies will be looking to send Allen, the team’s sole senior, out on a memorable note.
And what can be more memorable than beating the University of North Carolina Tar Heels at Cameron Indoor Stadium to put a bow on your regular season and, in Allen’s case, a career in Durham?
Having said that, and having read, reread, and revised and reread again, I think I’ll change my prediction: Heels complete the sweep and head back to Chapel Hill with a 74-70 victory.