Wednesday night is one of the four dates that most Duke basketball fans circle on the calendar when the schedule comes out as being the days they look forward to most in the entire year. Excluding birthdays, major life milestones, and the like, when it comes to basketball, I’d say that the two Carolina games, along with Selection Sunday and the day of the Final Four, probably are right at the top of the list.
This is an unusual, although far from unprecedented type of matchup. Unusual in that UNC is clearly having a down year, currently tied for 4th place in the conference at 6-4, unranked nationally, and not having secured a berth in the NCAA tournament due to their 16-7 overall record, the absence of a Top 25 win, and only being 1-5 against the RPI top 50. It hasn’t helped that they’ve been blown out of the gym by the two best teams they’ve played this year, Indiana and Miami, and were also spanked by a very mediocre Texas team.
At the same time, Duke, playing the last eight of its ten ACC games without senior forward Ryan Kelly, sits a solid second in the league at 8-2, and is ranked #2 in the nation. As David Kedson details in his piece currently up on BDN, there have been numerous instances over the years of Duke and Carolina matching up with one team ranked, including highly ranked, and the other being ranked much lower, or not at all. Interesting reading, so check it out.
So what to make of this Carolina team? First, the numbers. They’re at #36 in the RPI and #46 in KenPom, having played a schedule ranked #36 by KenPom — and the #178 out of conference strength of schedule. They lead the ACC in scoring at 78.3 ppg, just ahead of Duke. They’re second in the league in rebound margin and lead it in offensive boards. They lead the league in assists per game, and are second in assist-to-turnover ratio, behind Duke. So far so good. They’re 6th in the league in shooting, hitting 44.5% from the field (Duke is second in the league at 47.3%) and fourth in the league in 3-point shooting percentage, at 36.7%, making about 7 per game. (Duke leads at 41%) The defense? Not so much. They’re 9th in the league in points allowed per game, though this is partially a function of the pace at which they prefer to play. But they’re 7th in FG% defense and 9th in 3-point FG% allowed.
The Heels have not been a smooth-running machine this year, and it seems to me there are several reasons for it. As has been well-documented, Roy Williams’s best teams have been spearheaded by savvy, experienced point guards who excel at pushing the tempo. Ray Felton and Ty Lawson epitomized this style of play, and Kendall Marshall, while not nearly as fast as Felton and Lawson, had such superior court vision and was so crafty with the ball that he made Williams’s attack work very well too. Carolina has continued to push the pace this year — they’re sixth in the nation and #1 in the ACC in possessions per 40 minutes, and they’re fourth in the nation in KenPom’s adjusted tempo ratings, with freshman point guard Marcus Paige at the helm. Though Paige is talented and though he has had his moments, he has not proven ready to run a top-10 type of squad. Carolina just hasn’t been efficient, ranking only 55th in the nation in KenPom’s offensive efficiency ratings. Paige is dishing 4.5 assists in 28 minutes per game, but the former McDonald’s All-American is shooting just 32% from the field and only has an 89.4 offensive rating. Paige moves OK defensively, but the 157 pounder struggles sometimes with the physicality of his opponents.
Perhaps UNC could’ve gotten by with Paige playing at this level had he been surrounded by a talented core of veterans playing smart and focused basketball at both ends all year long, but that hasn’t been the case. Junior Reggie Bullock and sophomore P.J. Hairston were supposed to be two major pieces of foundation, pieces that could really be counted on this year, and while they’ve been good, they have not been nearly good enough. Bullock’s overrall numbers aren’t bad — he’s averaging 14 points and 5.6 boards, on 47.6% shooting, all up significantly over last year. And his offensive efficiency numbers are very strong. But he has not come up big in most of UNC’s most important games this year. 5 of 13 in the loss to Butler; 2 of 9 against Indiana; 6 of 17 vs. Texas; 4 of 16 in the first (home) loss to Miami; 4 of 11 in the loss to State. Another way to look at it, I suppose, is that Carolina is a lot more likely to win when Reggie Bullock plays well. I think it’s more accurate to say that Carolina perhaps could’ve beaten some of those upper echelon teams if Bullock had come up bigger in those games.
Hairston is a guy who a lot of Carolina fans would like to see play more. He’s coming off the bench and only getting 19 minutes per game. In that time, he is managing to average 12 points, but despite the rep as a sharpshooter, he’s actually hit only 41.7% of his field goals, though he has nailed 39% of his three-pointers. His offensive efficiency numbers are pretty good too. Hairston has scored in double figures in each of the Heels’ last five games.
The player who has disappointed Heels fans the most, however, is soph forward James Michael McAdoo. This is a kid who flirted with the idea of going pro after his freshman year and wisely decided against it. Well, wisely if you consider that he clearly wasn’t ready to play at that level. Not so wisely if you consider that his draft stock has dropped like a rock this year. McAdoo was supposed to be The Man this year, and he just hasn’t been. His numbers look OK — 15 points and 8 boards, shooting 45%, decent offensive efficiency and rebounding percentages. But he’s just not anywhere close to a dominant player. He floats in and out of games. He doesn’t have a go-to move. His midrange jumper is hot-and-cold. He does a lot of things pretty well, but nothing extremely well, and he just has not demonstrated the ability to take over a game. He’s exceeded 20 points only three times all year.
Dexter Strickland, now a senior, has also failed to live up to the lofty expectations heaped upon him upon his arrival in Chapel Hill. He was supposed to be a pretty big time scorer coming out of high school, but got forced into playing point guard, which is not his natural position, and never really seemed to recover from that experience. He gets 26 minutes, but they’re usually pretty nondescript, as he scores 7 points and gets 4 assists per game. He can drive the ball to the hoop sometimes, but his shot is streaky. He’s supposedly the defensive stopper in Carolina’s backcourt, but the evidence as to that is, at best, mixed.
Carolina has been running a lot of guys into and out of the post this year, as none of them have grabbed the position and made it his own. 6’9′ 220 pound Desmond Hubert has been the starter, but he has not made much of an impact. Freshman wide body Joel James is, well, wide, but he’s raw and has a lot to learn about how to play the game. Defensively, he’s not sure what he’s doing, and so he’s in foul trouble a lot. And the news just came out today that he isn’t playing on Wednesday night anyway due to a concussion. 6’7″ Jackson Simmons may take some of his time. 6’9″ freshman Brice Johnson is very skilled, but he’s even skinnier than Hubert, and doesn’t belong down low. The absence of a low post game has been one of the Heels’ glaring weaknesses this year. Had any of these guys been able to provide a consistent threat down there, the shots available to Hairston, Bullock, Leslie McDonald, and the others would have been of higher quality, and more of them would’ve gone in. As it is, between Paige’s growing pains and the lack of a post-up threat, Carolina has to work a lot harder to get good shots than they are used to.
But remember, Carolina has actually been much stronger offensively than defensively this year. Hubert and Johnson are too skinny inside, and James is not athletic enough to stay with skilled big men down low. Paige, like I said, can be out-physicaled. UNC has needed wing players Bullock, Hairston, McDonald, Strickland, and freshman J.P. Tokoto to commit to excellence on the defensive end, and they just haven’t done it consistently. They don’t play the passing lanes aggressively, they don’t stop penetration all that well, and they don’t rebound particularly well. Those kids are good athletes and should be good defenders, but they just don’t seem to have bought into the necessity for defensive effort. Not sporadic effort, but consistent effort, and the result has been some pretty bad defensive numbers and a lot more losses than the UNC faithful is used to.
Roy Williams has absorbed a fair amount of criticism this year from Carolina’s own fans. Among the complaints: 1) square peg/round hole, meaning trying to force this team to play at warp speed when he doesn’t have the personnel — especially the point guard — to do so effectively; 2) not getting PJ Hairston enough burn, or enough shots; and 3) not settling on a defined, manageable rotation. Not that the first two don’t, but this last one is something that I think has real legs. There’s just too many guys whose roles are ill-defined. McAdoo and Bullock each get 29 minutes per game, and Paige gets almost 28 at the point. Fine. But Dexter Strickland, who has not proven to be much of an impact player, is next at 26 minutes. Why? He gets more than PJ Hairston’s 19, more than the 18 that Leslie McDonald — shooting 41% from the 3 point line — gets. Why is that? And what of the youngsters? What exactly is Brice Johnson’s role on this team? What about J.P. Tokoto’s? They’re both athletic and talented, and have really impacted a number of games in a positive way. Johnson has scored in double figures 9 times this year. Tokoto doesn’t know what he’s getting from game to game. 17-18-19 minutes, or 6 or 7. What position is he even going to play when he’s in there, and why? It seems like there is a mass shuffling of players in and out, without much regard to how they’re playing or how the game is going. It has to be confusing and disconcerting to the kids, doesn’t it? Ten guys are averaging at least 11 minutes, plus Jackson Simmons at 8. I just think that’s too many. Al McGuire used to say that anytime you go past the seventh man, it’s “a Dunkirk.” Never question the wisdom of Al.
So what about this game then? Duke first and foremost has a significant advantage in the post. Mason Plumlee is significantly bigger, more skilled, and experienced than anyone UNC has down low. And Carolina’s post guys don’t have the kind of offensive games necessary to challenge Mason and draw fouls on him. Mason needs to just play simple, position defense, not reach, don’t get caught on any bad hedges 35 feet from the basket, and stay in the game. If he can do that, as he has in just about every game this year, he should be able to score 20+ points in this game, assuming our guards can get him the ball in good position. Mason should be able to establish solid position against the likes of Hubert, Simmons, McAdoo, or Johnson, as again he’s much bigger and has a more solid body than any of them. Once he gets it where he likes it, he’s just got to finish.
If Carolina doubles him (or triples as BC did) Mason has to make quick decisions. If he’s going to go up with it, go up quickly and with authority. If he’s going to pass it out, pass it back out quickly. And then the perimeter guys need to make quick decisions: shoot it, drive it, or swing it. Carolina’s defenders too often have lost interest as a possession deepens. If our guys maintain their focus, maintain their patience, and wait for a good shot, we’ll get one. And we almost have to shoot better from the perimeter than we did against BC, don’t we? Quinn Cook also had a number of runners and other short shots roll off the rim against the Eagles. Some of those are likely to fall on Wednesday night. Bottom line offensively is that we’re going to score a lot more than the 62 points we scored against BC. The key will be to do so efficiently.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Josh Hairston get some decent run again at the four. I know, my predictions are usually wrong. But McAdoo, playing the 4 for UNC, is not a freak athlete, one who will easily jump over Josh. He is, however, stronger than Amile Jefferson, and may be able to post him. I would expect K to give Josh and Amile roughly equal playing time at this position, subject to change depending on who is bringing it best defensively.
The key for Duke defensively though, I think, will be on the perimeter. Rasheed Sulaimon should be on Reggie Bullock, and Bullock has advantages in height, weight, and experience. Rasheed is going to have to take on the challenge of not only playing the passing lanes to limit Bullock’s touches in advantageous spots, but is going to have to bump and body this guy to make sure his shots are contested. I would expect to see Seth Curry on Dexter Strickland to start off, and perhaps on PJ Hairston when he comes in. Strickland is a guy who is just not going to kill you with either his shot or his drive, but Hairston can hurt you from range. Seth can, and should, play him close, not let him get decent looks from the outside, and make him put the ball on the floor. And Quin Cook has to play aggressively against the freshman Paige, don’t allow him to get into any kind of rhythm or to get his teammates the ball where they want it. The kid is making his first trip into Cameron. Try to rattle him.
Duke is also going to have to be solid in its transition defense. Carolina, like usual, likes to push the ball. They’re a good rebounding team. They grab it off the defensive board and they want to run. If there’s a formula for giving UNC some confidence in this game, it probably would include letting them get easy hoops in transition. Can’t do that.
There is always a lot of emotion in this gynormous rivalry game, of course. Duke has a better team this year, and they’re at home in this game. What Carolina has, in addition to a fair amount of untapped potential, is desperation. They need a signature win, a win that the committee can grab onto and say “looky here. This win shows they belong in the tournament.” They haven’t had one of those yet, with their best win of the season being at home over UNLV in late December. Though they know they’ll get Duke at home in the last game of the regular season, they may not want to wait for that one, as who knows what will happen between now and then. Carolina’s vets are unlikely to be intimidated by Cameron, as they spanked Duke there in last year’s regular season finale. They’re going to think they can do it again, even with a drastically different (and far less talented) roster. Duke is going to have to match their intensity and focus, which really should not be a problem. If they do so, and if the shots fall a little more frequently than they did in Chestnut Hill, the Blue Devils should send the Heels back to Chappa Heeya with their tails between their legs, their sixth loss in the last eight games against the Devils, and with their fifth conference loss in eleven games this season. Which would be nice.
Duke scored the last six points of the game over the last 2:15 to stave off the challenge of a very game Boston College team, and escape Chestnut Hill with a 62-61 win over the ACC cellar dwellers. Mason Plumlee posted his 13th double-double of the season, scoring 19 points and grabbing 10 rebounds, and hitting three key free throws down the stretch as the Blue Devils moved to 21-2 overall and 8-2 in the league heading into the clash with North Carolina on Wednesday night.
This game was far from a thing of beauty. More like a slog, actually. Due to the giant blizzard that hit the northeast this weekend, Duke did not fly into Boston until Sunday morning, and missed its customary shootaround. Some will blame the Devils’ slow start — and that’s being charitable — on the altered travel plans and consequent break in routine, but I’m not so sure. Duke has had a lot of sluggish first halves this year in the absence of inclement weather. Considering the quality of the opponent, though, this one was as bad as any. Looking like they had their snowshoes on their feet and Gore-Tex gloves on their hands, it took Duke five minutes to get on the board, and at the 13 minute mark, the score was 6-2 in favor of BC.
The guys just couldn’t do anything right on offense. Several things were going on. BC was doubling (or tripling) Mason Plumlee down low every time he touched it. The Blue Devils’ All-American candidate had a lot of trouble finishing in traffic. Quinn Cook made a number of questionable decisions, including two poor ones attempting to throw alley-oops to Plumlee. One just wasn’t there (it was intercepted) and the second Mason managed to catch but couldn’t finish after bringing it down. Quinn also missed Mason having an obvious mismatch against a smaller defender, choosing instead to go one-on-one himself, and charged. And he lost it on another drive into the lane too. Seth Curry missed two open three pointers. Rasheed Sulaimon turned it over on a drive into the lane and was invisible for long stretches. Alex Murphy tried an alley oop to Mason too, but he telegraphed it and it was an easy pick for the Eagles. The Blue Devils only made one three-point shot in the entire first half, that by Tyler Thornton on a kickout from a triple teamed Plumlee to make the score 6-5. After almost 8 minutes of action. Duke looked absolutely nothing like a #1 team, and many viewers were doubtless ready to go back to the Weather Channel.
Fortunately, Duke was playing solid man-to-man, and the Eagles got nothing easy. Star forward Ryan Anderson’s name was hardly called in the first eight minutes of the game, and his first hoop wasn’t until nine minutes had elapsed. (He finished with 17 though.) BC doesn’t have a lot of talent on offense, and Duke knew it. The Devils pretty much stayed home, didn’t help off their men, didn’t double. They just guarded, and did so pretty well. Hence, BC’s total of 17 points in the first 13 minutes of the game.
Midway through the first half, it looked like maybe Duke was going to pull out of it and start to get things going. Mason slipped a screen and Seth hit him rolling to the hoop for an and-one. Sheed nailed a pull-up. Ty Thornton hustled and saved a ball going out of bounds, a play which led to Sulaimon taking a charge. Rasheed then found Amile Jefferson in the lane for a hoop. Duke was showing some life.
But things went south again. Curry missed another in-and-out 3 off a baseline screen; Amile flopped, I mean, he tried to sell a call down low, but when he didn’t get the call he got up and fouled Dennis Clifford for an and-one. Mason was right there too, and would’ve blocked that one, so Amile didn’t need to make that play. Thornton rifled an entry pass into Mason at warp speed; nobody could’ve caught that thing: turnover. Cook made another bad pass, this time on the break, for another turnover. Curry missed a wide open three in transition; Alex Murphy clanged a 3 too. Mason, trying to work against another double, got his footwork tangled up and ended up throwing something up as he was basically falling backwards onto his backside. That one will not be on the Wooden Award highlight reel. BC had busted out to a 21-14 lead. In this game, seven points loomed large.
But then Duke rallied again. Curry split a double team and hit a beautiful floater. Seth then curled off a baseline Plumlee screen and hit again. Duke ran off a BC turnover and Thornton converted in transition. Then, finally, with about a minute to play in the half, Quinn missed a jumper, Josh Hairston kept it alive, and it ended up with Mason. There was traffic there, but instead of hesitating and faking repeatedly, he just went up. He went right up, against a triple team, and scored and got fouled. That was more like it. And then he closed out the half with an emphatic dunk after rebounding Cook’s missed 3. Yes, there was a lot of faking before going up on this one, but he used the faking effectively, maneuvering for space. Very strong finish to the half, which ended deadlocked at 27. Duke finished the half with just one made three pointer (the one by Thornton) and nine turnovers. This from a team that averages 11 per game.
To begin the second half, Coach K started Josh Hairston at the 4 in place of Jefferson. While Josh brought his usual energy to the floor, and he battled — and he even hit a 16 foot J as well — Amile hardly saw the court. Despite starting, he only got 11 minutes of action in the whole game. I did not understand this. Early on I saw Jefferson blocking out well, he was battling on the boards, he took the ball aggressively to the hole, even though his shot was not falling. He was forcing the action, in a good way. Yet when K played a 4-man at all in the second half, it was almost exclusively Hairston, who got 17 minutes. But what K really did in the second half was use a four guard lineup for significant stretches: Cook, Curry, Sulaimon, and Thornton, along with Plumlee. That is not something we have seen much of this year, but we sure saw it tonight.
One reason for it was that Ty Thornton was playing well. This team needed energy, and it needed fight. Those are Thornton’s bread-and-butter. He saved balls going out of bounds, he scrapped for balls on the floor. On one play in the first half he made a nice crossover move to get into the lane and dished to Jefferson, leading to a BC foul. You don’t often see Thornton putting pressure on the opposing defense, but he did it a little bit tonight.
So the second half was really more of the same. Curry hit an early three. But Quinn’s shots continued to roll off the rim. Duke continued to move its feet well on D, challenging shots down low, and rarely giving up anything easy. At about the 15 minute mark, it looked like Duke might take control. Cook finally hit a 3 from the corner. After Anderson scored underneath in between three Devils defenders, Quinn missed a 3, but it bounced out to Curry, who banged home a 3 and got fouled, for a four-point play. Duke was up 5. But the Devils could never pull away. Back and forth they went. Plumlee went straight up against traffic and got fouled, hitting both throws. He poked away a pass on the perimeter and cruised in for a dunk. Seth with another and-one from the left side. But BC kept answering, primarily with drives and short jumpers by freshman guard Olivier Hanlan — who was excellent all night, leading BC with 20 points — where he would either score or get fouled. The Eagles hung tough, and embarrassed Duke when Eddie Odio got free on an alley-oop off an inbounds play. Duke answered with an alley oop to Plumlee here, a 3 pointer by Cook there. And so it went. A slog, I say.
The momentum appeared to swing to BC, though, at about the 5:30 mark or so. Cook fouled Hanlan in the lane — Quinn’s fourth. Curry then got beaten backdoor for a layup and the Eagles had tied it. With the crowd into it, Thornton jacked up a 3 early in the clock. Not a great decision. BC scored at the other end; timeout Duke, as the Eagles had the lead. Nervous time.
Duke continued with the small lineup. Mason and four guards. With BC up three, Thornton made a strip, but then threw it away starting to lead a break. Timeout BC, up 3 with 2:30 to go. Hanlan then hit 2 free throws to put them up 5 with 2:15 to play. Very nervous time.
After a pretty miserable day offensively, Quinn Cook then came up big, nailing a 3-pointer from the corner to cut the lead to two. Anderson missed a 3 at the other end, and Cook came up with it to give Duke a chance to tie. After a timeout, he lobbed to Mason, who drew a foul on Anderson, and the big guy made two free throws to tie it. He didn’t just make them. Swished them both. With Sulaimon running at him, BC freshman guard Joe Rahon then bonked a 12 footer from the corner off the top of the backboard, and Mason was fouled on the rebound. This time the big guy hit one of two to give Duke the lead. Last possession time for the Eagles. They ran a good play, and Hanlan got a great look at the basket from about 12 feet away on a stop and pop. Very makable, but he banged it off the backboard, and the game ended with a scrum as everyone went after the loose ball rebound on the floor.
Exhale. Hurry up, turn off the TV, and move on. Do something else and just make sure this game stays in the rear view mirror.
So what to take from a game like this? Well, at one level, it’s just survive and advance. Six of the 10 teams in the Top 10 this week lost games, including four of the top 5. Only Duke got through unscathed. Barely, but they got through.
It’s always good to win conference road games. That’s Duke’s third in a row on the road. It’s also good to get a win when you’re clearly not playing your best, especially on the road. Now there may not be a lot of ACC teams that Duke would’ve been able to beat tonight playing like they did at the offensive end, but the fact remains that it’s good for the team’s confidence to learn they can win even when they’re having an off night in many respects. The Blue Devils ended up shooting 40% for the game, and 6 of 17, or 35% from 3-point land.
K continued to experiment with lineups. Much of the second half, and some of the first too, was spent with Cook and Thornton on the floor together. As I mentioned earlier, the four guard lineup was utilized extensively. Defensively, there was little of the switching that Duke customarily employs. Good to work some of that stuff out.
Alex Murphy got six minutes, and while he wasn’t hurting the team much, he wasn’t doing a heck of a lot to help it out of the offensive doldrums either. He was working hard on D, though, and that is why, I surmise, he was not subject to a quick hook. Marshall Plumlee did not play.
But you have to give some credit to BC too. This is an extremely young team, and one that has not had a lot of success this year. They played Duke very tough. They weren’t intimidated at all, and they didn’t get rattled when Duke would make a little run. The Eagles came hard at Mason Plumlee, and they caused him some real trouble, Mason’s final numbers notwithstanding. They fought Duke to a draw on the boards, and they didn’t turn it over much — only 12 times. The Eagles didn’t shoot the 3 well, but they never do. But they played smart basketball, and they were poised. Olivier Hanlan was the best player on the floor tonight not named Plumlee. Bottom line: they had an open 12 footer to win the game, and take out the #4 (or higher) team in the land. Had to play pretty well no matter how poorly Duke played. And while Duke did play poorly on offense, they didn’t on D. Credit to BC for scaring the bejesus out of the Blue Devils tonight.
The date was February 28, 1981. First year coach Mike Krzyzewski led his unranked Duke team against a North Carolina team that would go on to play for the national championship. It was Coach K’s first home game in The Rivalry, the last home game for senior captain Gene Banks and wildman Kenny Dennard. Before the game, Banks loped from the locker room dressed in a tuxedo and tossed roses into the crowd.
North Carolina, #11 in the AP poll, came into Cameron without the services of injured star forward James Worthy. Pumped by the energy of the fabled Cameron crowd, Duke came out strong and battled the more talented UNC team. At halftime Carolina clung to a one point lead, and the second half was back and forth all the way through. A UNC bucket With two seconds to play put the Tar Heels ahead 58 to 56.
Duke inbounded from beneath its own basket. The Cameron scoreboard clock, which did not yet track tenths of seconds, ticked down to 0:01 left. Duke called a timeout and Dennard readied to inbound from midcourt. Coach K drew up the play. Junior Vince Taylor set a screen to spring sophomore Tom Emma, but Carolina slipped through it. Sharpshooter Chip Engelland, who despite taking most of his shots from the perimeter hit 55.7% of his attempts that season, set up in the corner, but too many Tar Heels intervened for Dennard to get the ball there safely. Banks saw the broken play and curled to the free throw line. Dennard floated the pass to Banks, who caught and spun. All American forward Sam Perkins hurried forward and extended his unnaturally long arms. Banks released. Perkins’s fingers grazed the ball but didn’t alter its trajectory and the shot descended through the hoop as the buzzer sounded, sending the crowd into a frenzy and the game into overtime. Four minutes and 41 seconds into the five minute overtime period, Banks rebounded a missed Taylor shot and laid it in for a 66-65 Duke win. Billy Packer was flabbergasted.
This was Duke/Carolina. The best rivalry in sports, where you throw out the record book and rankings don’t matter. Anything can happen.
That’s the narrative, anyway. But is it true? Can we really throw the rankings out the window when unranked North Carolina and top five Duke square off this coming Wednesday?
Well, no, not really.
During Coach K’s tenure in Durham, including the classic “Gene Banks game” his first season, the historic rivals have met 23 times when one of them is ranked and the other unranked. The ranked team has won 19 of those 23 games, or 82.6% of the time. When Duke or UNC is ranked in the top five and the other is unranked, the top team has won 12 of 13 (92.3%).
“So?” you might say, “at least the underdog won a few of them. That means something, right?”
Maybe. But comparing those results to Duke’s games against two randomly selected ACC opponents, it doesn’t look that way. During the Coach K years, Duke has faced Wake Forest 46 times when one is ranked and the other unranked. The ranked team won 39 of those games for a winning percentage of 84.8%. We’ve had 43 such games
against Clemson during that span and the ranked team has won 37 (86.0%). Pretty similar to the 82.6% in the Duke/UNC rivalry. Also in Duke/Clemson, one team has been in the top five while the other is unranked 28 times and the ranked team has won all 28. At least in Duke/UNC, the unranked team won once (UNC back in 1990, if you’re curious). Well, if you want to hang your hat on one game, go ahead. But in the Duke/Wake series during Coach K’s tenure, the top five team has only won 22 out of 29 of the games (75.9%). WAY less predictable than Duke/UNC. But the announcers don’t tell you to throw out the record book when Wake comes to town, do they?
Believe it or not, Duke/UNC looks even less unpredictable if you expand it to include games when both teams have been ranked. In such games during Coach K’s time, the higher ranked team has won 30 and lost 22, thus winning 57.7% of the time. In Duke/Wake it’s been 9 to 9 (50%) and in Duke/Clemson 6 to 5 (54.5%), so the team you’d expect to win has done so more often in the Duke/UNC rivalry than in the others.
How about when one of the teams is in the top five and the other is outside the top ten? Duke and Carolina have played 18 such games during Coach K’s time here, with the top five team winning 13, for a 72.2% success rate. Pretty unpredictable, wouldn’t you say? Alas, that number’s not much different than similar games against Wake, where the top five team has won 5 of 7 (71.4%) or against Clemson, where the top five team has won 4 of 5 (80%). So no luck there.
Just to be thorough, let’s look at when both Duke and UNC are in the top ten. In that case, the higher ranked team has won 16 and lost 17 (48.5%), which seems to support the “anything can happen” meme until you consider that in such situations during the Duke/Wake series, the higher ranked top ten team has only won 3 and lost 6 (33.3%). This has only happened three times in Duke/Clemson since 1980-81, with the higher ranked team winning 2 and losing 1 (66.7%). When both teams are in the top five, the tally for Duke/UNC is 5 to 5, for Duke/Wake is 1 to 0, and for Clemson hasn’t happened during the Coach K years.
Bottom line, in the Duke/UNC rivalry the team you expect to win usually does. About the same, or even more so, than in Duke’s series with other ACC teams.
So is ESPN just making it up? Is The Rivalry not what we thought it was? I’m going to say “no” again. It’s real and it’s wonderful, as anybody who’s had the good fortune to attend a Duke/UNC game can attest.
For one thing, unlike the Wake and Clemson series, whether the Duke/UNC underdog wins has little to do with venue. The upset winners in Duke/Wake and Duke/Clemson are almost always playing at home (77% of the unranked winners and 79% of the lower ranked winners when both are ranked). While it’s true in the Duke/UNC rivalry that 3 of the 4 unranked winners (75%) played at home, that’s a very small sample. When both teams are ranked, the lower ranked winners only played at home in 36% of the upsets (8 of 22).
But even putting that aside, the real magic of the Duke/UNC rivalry is not that “anything can happen.” No, what makes it the stuff of legend is how amazingly good both teams are, year in and year out. Since Gene Banks put his mark on Duke history in 1981, Duke and Carolina have met 75 times. And from 1982 to 2012, either Duke or UNC has been ranked in the top ten in 73 of those 75 games (the only exceptions coming in 1997 when #12 Duke beat #19 UNC, and in 1996, when #19 UNC beat unranked Duke). Both Duke and UNC have been ranked in the top ten 33 times in Coach K’s 32 seasons here (not counting this one since they haven’t played yet). Ten times they’ve both been in the top five.
I haven’t researched my next statement, but I doubt any other series can match that standard of excellence on both sides of the rivalry. And because both teams are almost always so good, especially when you add in the close proximity of the schools and the genuine enmity the fanbases have for each other, the Duke/UNC rivalry truly is special. The players, the fans, and the coaching staffs bring a passion to the rivalry game unmatched in college sports.
So, relax, Duke/Carolina is still Duke/Carolina. And while I wouldn’t want to offend the weauxf gods, considering that this week Duke is in the top five and UNC is unranked, you might also want to take at least a little bit of comfort in that 12 and 1 history, too.
It’s tempting to suggest the elements will be a bigger hurdle to Duke winning its game Sunday night at Boston College than the opponent. The snow is supposed to be measured in feet but the Eagles are tied for last in the ACC (2-7, 10-12 overall), have lost six of their last seven games, and don’t have any RPI top 100 wins (though according to Pomeroy they have two such wins, both at home, against #61 Providence and #100 Clemson). So on paper this game is a mismatch.
It probably will be in real life, as well, assuming the game happens. There have been conflicting reports as to whether the Duke team has already left for Boston or not, but if they haven’t, they’ll probably try to fly up there Sunday morning and who knows if the airport will be open? It’s possible this could end up a “trap game” if Duke looks forward to the UNC game next week, but it’s more possible that BC simply isn’t good enough to beat Duke whether Duke is looking forward or not. That said, Kansas lost to TCU this week, so hopefully Duke will be ready to go. The Eagles played tough in home losses to Miami (1 point), Wake Forest (3 points), and a road loss at Maryland (5 points).
Steve Donohue’s third edition at BC is not as young as last year’s version, but it’s still pretty green. Boston College starts two freshman and three sophomores, and its top two reserves are also sophomores. The only upperclassmen who get any run are the eighth and ninth men, 6’10” grad student Andrew Van Nest (12.7 mpg) and 6’6 junior Danny Rubin (7.2 mpg). The Eagles aren’t that deep, with their four top players getting minutes ranging from 32 to 35. Their fifth starter has been somewhat fluid, mostly split between three sophomores: 6’5″ Patrick Heckman, 7’0″ Dennis Clifford, and 6’7″ Eddie Odio.
Odio got the starting nod in BC’s last game, a 22 point drubbing at Miami, and won the raves of his coach for his hustle and smart play. He averages 15 minutes per game, with 3.0 points per game and 2.7 rebounds, and sounds like he might be a bit like former Duke player Dave McClure. Seven footer Clifford, who started 25 of 31 games a year ago, has been hampered with leg injuries and only played 5 minutes against Miami. He got a cortisone shot last week and should play against Duke but it’s difficult to say how much. For the season, he’s missed three games with his injuries and only averages 16.5 mpg after playing 26.7 mpg in 2011-12. He averages 3.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, and 1.0 blocks, but if you look at the more advanced stats it’s apparent he’s a very solid rebounder (offensive rebounding percentage of 10.7% and defensive rebounding pct of 18.9%). Heckman, who has 13 starts this season, is a 6’5 guard averaging 23.0 mpg, with 7.5 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 1.5 assists. His 108.7 offensive rating is 2nd on the team.
BC’s four main players are perhaps more interesting. 6’8″ sophomore Ryan Anderson plays 32.8 mpg and amasses 16.0 points and 8.8 rebounds. His rebounding percentages of 10.1% offensive and 22.6% defensive are comparable to Mason Plumlee’s (10.5% offensive and 23.9% defensive). I’m not sure how often Anderson teams with Clifford out there, but when Clifford’s sitting, Anderson vs. Mason should be an interesting matchup.
Other than Anderson and their roving 5th starter, the Eagles start three guards. 6’3″ sophomore Lonnie Jackson plays 31.8 mpg with 10.1 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 2.2 assists. His offensive rating of 110.5 leads the team, mostly due to his three point shooting. Jackson leads the ACC in three point attempts with 135 (over 6 per game) and his 39.3% long-distance percentage is 6th in the conference. The top two minute-getters on BC are both freshmen: 6’4″ Olivier Hanlon and 6’2″ Joe Rahon, who was last week’s ACC rookie of the week. Hanlon plays 34.0 mpg, with 13.9 points, 2.7 assists, 1.2 steals, and is a pretty good rebounder for a guard at 4.2 per game. Rahon leads BC with 3.6 assists per game, along with 10.3 points, 3.0 rebounds, and 1.0 steals. Still a freshman, he scored 26 against Clemson but put up a goose egg against Miami.
Boston College is ranked 150th by the RPI, 124th by Sagarin, and 127th by Pomeroy. They’re not bad on offense, as according to Pomeroy they have the 60th most efficient offense in the country, but they’re dreadful on D, ranked 223rd in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Eagles play at the fourth slowest tempo in the ACC (238th in the country) while Duke plays the fourth fastest (72nd in the country), so it may be interesting to see who wins the battle to set the pace.
Expect a ton of threes to fly through the air. BC is first in the ACC in launching from outer space, with 32.7% of their shot attempts coming from three-land, and Duke is 2nd in the conference, at 29.5%. A big difference there, however, is that Duke is first in the ACC in 3-point shooting percentage (7th in the nation), at 41.1%, while BC ranks 9th in the conference at only 34.0%. BC also gets to the line a lot (3rd in the ACC in free throw rate, while Duke is 6th), but their free throw percentage leaves something to be desired. In ACC play so far they’ve only hit 64% of their free throws (69.7% for the entire season). So, the two things they do best — attempt threes and attempt free throws — they don’t finish very well.
The other area to watch is turnovers. Duke has the fewest pace-adjusted turnovers in the conference and is 1st in the league in assist/turnover ratio (6th in the nation), while BC is 8th in the conference in pace-adjusted turnovers. On the defensive end, Duke forces the third most turnovers in the conference while BC forces the fourth least. So if BC doesn’t take care of the ball it could be a long night for them.
In sum, while anything could happen, Duke doesn’t appear to need their “A” game to win this one. If we can get through the snow and bring anything close to our “B” game, it should be a nice stepping stone to the rivalry game on Wednesday.