Keys To The Game: Round 3

The match-up between Barnes and Singler is just one of several deciding factors

From the time they got on the bus to go home after being trounced in Chapel Hill, the Blue Devils' focus has been on improving defensively. The team spent the week prior to the ACC Tournament running two a day practices (albeit light ones) focusing on improving the rebounding and defensive pressure applied to the opponents. The results speak for themselves as Duke has easily dispatched Maryland and Virginia Tech en route to the ACC Championship game this afternoon. In those two games Duke has out-rebounded their opponents by a 76-66 margin while holding their opponents to 47-of-113 from the field (42 percent).

Offensively Duke has put an emphasis of attacking the basket instead of settling for jump shots. Most notable has been the change in Kyle Singler who has shot 14-of-26 from the field and 14-of-14 from the free throw line through the two games. Singler's outside shot continued to be MIA (0-for-6), but with the 6'8 forward attacking the basket constantly, he's been able to overcome those misfires.

And when Duke attacks the basket, they are sending the post players (the Plumlees, Kelly, and Singler) to the rim to collect offensive rebounds and second chance points. The Blue Devils have 32 second chance points off of 29 offensive boards so far in Greensboro. Duke also enjoys a 62-56 advantage on points in the paint.

Each trend will need to continue against North Carolina this afternoon. The Tar Heels seem to have some sort of destiny on their side through two games. In each an opponent has held a seemingly safe lead only to melt down in the final minutes. First it was Miami who had a 19 point advantage only to lose at the buzzer. Then it was Clemson who held a double figure lead for most of the game and a five point margin with a minute left only to fold completely and get smacked in overtime.

For North Carolina those rallies begin with the play of super freshman Harrison Barnes. After a slow start, Barnes is playing like an All-American and the likely first pick in the NBA Draft. He went for 40 points against Clemson and did it a way that seemed almost effortless. Even with the opponents building leads, Barnes kept the Heels within striking distance until his teammates decided to shake their first half funks and pull their weight. When that happened, North Carolina's defense got a lot tougher as momentum fueled a full court press and both the Hurricanes and Tigers wilted.

The common thread in each of the Heels' first two games was an opponent that came out attacking, and raced out to an early advantage. Such a start didn't exist for Duke in either of the two regular season games against North Carolina. In the first match-up the Tar Heels were the team that came out swinging and jumped out to a huge first half advantage before Duke adjusted and rallied in the second half. In Chapel Hill the Tar Heel walk-ons provided an early spark before Duke could take a lead at 21-20. From there, however, the atmosphere embolden the Tar Heels and seemed to bother the Blue Devils as North Carolina used a late run to build a double-figure lead that was never seriously challenged.

Much of the reason was a lack of defensive pressure applied to North Carolina during the game deciding spurt that resulted in a 51-39 halftime deficit. In the Virginia Tech post game, each Duke player cited the lack of defense and the need to clamp down early.

"I know we can't give up 51 points in the first half again," said Nolan Smith. "We have to get ready to defend Carolina. We have to do a lot better defensively. We have play Duke defense, because their confidence will be sky high."

Sunday's game will likely see an atmosphere similar to that of the game in Chapel Hill, if not a bit more hostile as the common Tar Heel supporter will have access to the game via the ticket exchange market outside the Greensboro Coliseum. Of the 23,500 fans in attendance this afternoon, more than 17,000 are expected to be clad in pastel blue, leaving this game's neutral setting neutral in name only.

On the court Duke will need to figure out how to play Barnes. So far the freshman has shown the ability to go off the bounce and finish at the rim, while also stroking perimeter jumpers with relative ease. And with range out to 23 feet. And when he's off the ball? Barnes has been just as attack minded by crashing the boards and using his length and athleticism to create second chance points. As soon as North Carolina shoots, Barnes is darting to the basket. He did it a lot against Duke, and when the Blue Devils failed to box out from the wing, it resulted in either an easy layup, or second chance for the Tar Heels.

The talented freshman certainly represents a match-up problem and, perhaps, a final ACC challenge for Kyle Singler. Coming into the season many believed the senior's experience would be enough to give him the leg up on the talented freshman. Instead, Barnes has clearly been the more consistent and dangerous player, while Singler has struggled in the match-up. In the two games combined Singler has posted a stat-line of just 18 points while shooting 6-of-31 from the field (19.3 percent).

Contained within those 31 shot attempts were 11 three pointers - only one of which fell. Unless Singler finds himself in a zone and nearly unconscious from the perimeter, taking 35 percent of his shots from the three point line won't get it done on Sunday. And considering the senior hasn't connected on a three pointer since senior night in Cameron and is just 8-of-43 (18.6 percent) from the perimeter since February 1, it's a safe bet the emphasis will be on attacking the basket and making Barnes defend as a defensive strategy.

Inside the Blue Devil big men have enjoyed a solid ACC Tournament, but will need to stay out of foul trouble against the trio of John Henson, Tyler Zeller, and Justin Knox. In Chapel Hill Mason Plumlee was saddled with two fouls in the first two minutes which opened the lane for Carolina to attack with their front line.

In the ACC's opening round the Blue Devils faced off against the conference's best big man, Maryland's Jordan Williams, and came away with a productive night of a combined 32 points, 22 rebounds, and 13-of-19 from the field from the Plumlees and Ryan Kelly. More importantly in 75 combined minutes the trio of bigs committed just seven fouls with the younger Plumlee playing a career high 38 minutes.

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