Preview: Duke (22-3) v. North Carolina (18-7)

The Blue Devils and Tar Heels tip off on Wednesday night at 9:10 PM EST on ESPN

NORTH CAROLINA TAR HEELS

18-7 Overall; 8-4 ACC; 6-3 Away

PROJECTED STARTERS
F- 11 Brice Johnson (12.5 ppg, 7.8 rpg)
F- 22 Isaiah Hicks (6.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg)
F- 44 Justin Jackson (9.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg)
G- 00 Nate Britt (6.3 ppg, 1.8 apg)
G- 05 Marcus Paige (13.9 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.8 apg)

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STAR WATCH
Preseason ACC Player of the Year Marcus Paige hasn’t enjoyed the success you’d expect to see from a player holding such lofty accolades. That’s not to say the North Carolina junior guard hasn’t been very good…he has. And yet, Paige’s 13.9 points and 4.2 assists per game are probably not enough to get him on the First Team All-ACC lists due out in a few weeks. Despite all of that, Paige has proven to be the kind of player who can single handedly steer control of a contest towards his team by hitting big shot after big shot. Currently he leads the Heels in perimeter shooting, hitting 40.5 percent from three-point range (30 for 74) against ACC opponents.

A season ago Paige kept his team in the game at Cameron, leading North Carolina with 24 points on 9-of-14 shooting including 3-of-6 from long range. It wasn’t enough to overcome a brilliant performance by Jabari Parker (30 points and 11 rebounds), but the performance showed not only Paige’s ability to score from all over the court, but also his knack for picking his game up after intermission as 18 of his 24 points came in the second half. It was the same story for Paige in the first meeting in Chapel Hill when he scored all 13 of his points after half-time.

THE STORYLINES



BATTLED TESTED FOR FINAL STRETCH
Duke has just six regular season games remaining with four of those contests scheduled to take place in the friendly confines of Cameron Indoor Stadium, and only one of those game taking place outside of North Carolina. It’s certainly a nice change for a Duke team that has played a road schedule that is unrivaled by any program in the country. Not only have the Blue Devils gone into unfriendly territory and battled, they’ve also won a number of big games and boast a 4-1 record against teams in the top 10 with all four wins coming on the road.

Meanwhile, the Heels enter the game smarting after being thumped by Pittsburgh on the road on Saturday afternoon. In that game North Carolina allowed the Panthers to shoot a sizzling 65 percent from the floor. There seems to be a trend of losing in tough environments of late as the Tar Heels have lost at Louisville, at Virginia, and at Pittsburgh over the last two weeks. The program’s lone win during that stretch came on the road against lowly Boston College at Conte Forum on February 7th.

North Carolina is 4-4 against ranked teams this season.

WHO WILL CONTROL THE BOARDS
Last season the headlines went to Jabari Parker as Duke’s fabulous freshman lead a spirited effort in Cameron with his double-double. Lost in the glow of the Chicago freshman’s 30 point, 11 rebound performance as the job the Blue Devils did on the glass against the Tar Heels. Duke out-rebounded North Carolina 36-20 in that game with the 20 rebounds being UNC’s fewest in a game in nearly 30 years. And by cleaning the glass at such a high level, Duke was able to overcome North Carolina shooting nearly 60 percent from the field. It was the first time a Roy Williams team had lost when shooting at least 50.0 percent. In the first half, UNC shot 61.9 percent from the floor but trailed 40-37 because Duke took 36 shots to Carolina’s 21. Duke kept up the pace after intermission by going on a 29-14 run.

Entering this season’s game the Heels lead the ACC in offensive rebounding percentage at .422 (No. 2 nationally) overall and at .398 in ACC games. The Tar Heels are fourth in the ACC in defensive rebounding percentage in conference games at .719. Duke, meanwhile, is one of the better offensive rebounding teams in the country, pulling in 12.3 per contest.

North Carolina’s starting front court of Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks, and J.P. Tokoto average 20.5 rebounds per game, while Duke will counter with the trio of Okafor, Jefferson, and Winslow who have combined for 21.3 boards per game. The X-factor could be Jefferson who hasn’t totaled more than five boards since grabbing nine against Pittsburgh in early January. He’s averaged only 4.0 boards per contest in the last seven games.

EVOLVING ROSTERS
Duke began the season with 10 scholarship players including nine former McDonald’s All-Americans. However, Mike Krzyzewski’s squad has been ravaged by unexpected changes which began with the transfer of reserve power forward Semi Ojelye to SMU and then the dismissal of sixth man Rasheed Sulaimon in January. Those two losses have reduced the Duke rotation to seven players - sometimes eight when Grayson Allen grabs minutes in the backcourt.

Similarly, North Carolina has lost a pair or rotational players in the last month with injuries to Theo Pinson who broke the fifth metatarsal, a bone in his left foot on January 21st; and Desmond Hubert who suffered a torn ACL on February 6th in practice. Pinson is out indefinitely while Hubert’s season is over. Still, North Carolina head coach Roy Williams can and will go 10 deep when needed, but prefers to play a top eight of Johnson, Isaiah Hicks, Justin Jackson, Nate Britt, Paige, Joel Berry, Kennedy Meeks, and Tokoto.




Notebook:

- Duke is 9-2 against teams ranked in the top 50 of the RPI, including a 3-0 mark against teams ranked in the top 10. North Carolina enters Wednesday’s contest ranked No. 10 in the RPI.

- Quinn Cook is averaging a career-high 14.8 points per game while also posting career bests in field goal percentage (.454), three-point percentage (.392), three-point field goals (2.60 3pg.) and free throw percentage (.908).

- Duke is the only team in the NCAA with three freshmen averaging double figures in scoring. Jahlil Okafor (18.2 ppg.), Justise Winslow (11.4 ppg.) and Tyus Jones (11.3 ppg.) combine for 40.9 points per game (50.9 percent of Duke scoring). A freshman has led the Blue Devils in scoring in 18 of 25 games. Jahlil Okafor has paced the offensive attack 11 times, while Tyus Jones (5) and Justise Winslow (2) have also led Duke in scoring multiple times. The rookie trio has also accounted for 15 of Duke’s 17 20-point games on the year (Okafor 10, Jones 4, Winslow 1).

- Duke leads the ACC in scoring at 80.3 points per game. The Blue Devils are looking to pace the conference in scoring in back-to-back years for the first time since finishing atop the league scoring charts from 1997-2003.

- Duke is averaging 87.8 points per game on 53.6 percent shooting from the field, including 61.2 percent (278-of-454) from two-point range, over 11 games at Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils have scored 80 or more points in a game eight times at home this season.

- Duke is 11-1 at Cameron Indoor Stadium this season and has lost more than one game at home just twice over the past 14 seasons.




They Said It:

“They have the best balance of any team in college basketball” - Roy Williams on Duke

"You want the rest of them to beat you. [Okafor]’s going to get his, but he can’t just beat you by himself. He’s just one player; there are four other guys on the court. Hopefully, he’ll kick it out and they won’t make that many shots.” - Brice Johnson on slowing down Okafor




The Prediction

North Carolina has the potential to be a very bad matchup for Duke. A bigger guard who can make shots (Paige), and a stable of bigs who can rebound and make things tough on Okafor. The Tar Heels also have the ability to up their play to match the hot hand and have shown the ability to complete with the nation's elite rosters. It will be important for Duke to play an even game on the glass and to assure that the Heels don't have an unexpectedly hot shooting night from the perimeter. The key will be how well the Blue Devils compete on the defensive glass - particularly Jefferson and Winslow. Look for Duke to work to Okafor early and for Carolina to attempt to force the big man to pass out as soon as the ball comes in. The Heels will also look to force Okafor away from the paint when posting. If the Blue Devils can overcome that and shoot relatively well from the outside, they should be able to get to win number 23.

Duke - 81
North Carolina - 73

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