CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The latest edition of the North Carolina-Duke rivalry could hinge on which team establishes its preferred method of play in a contest of contrasting styles.
Roy Williams often talks of his traditional lineup imposing its will against opponents that play with a four-guard rotation by utilizing its size on the offensive end while limiting its exposure defensively. Mike Krzyzewski will counter with spacing and a penetrate-and-pitch strategy to disrupt UNC’s defensive plan and force help on the drive.
The Tar Heels’ three-man post rotation of Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks has wreaked havoc for opposing defenses this season. Duke, on the other hand, is playing with just one big – senior center Marshall Plumlee – while senior forward Amile Jefferson remains sidelined with a broken right foot.
Krzyzewski has adapted by sliding 6-foot-9 wing Brandon Ingram to the 4-spot, which creates a matchup problem for both teams on Wednesday.
“It’s a question we’re still talking about as a staff,” Williams said on Tuesday. “The easy thing is to put Brice on him and say you’ve got to get out there and guard him, but he’s got to guard you, too, on the low post. But we had discussions about it this morning in a staff meeting and we’ll probably have some more. I’ll check the moon and the stars tonight and see how they line up and make a decision.”
Compounding the issue for UNC is that Johnson and Hicks are notorious for committing ill-advised fouls. In ACC play, Hicks ranks third in fouls committed per 40 minutes (6.99), according to kenpom.com. Johnson checks in at No. 15 with 4.59.
“I always joke with Isaiah that he checks into the game with two fouls already in the book,” senior guard Marcus Paige said. “I guess for them it’s just going to be playing defense with your feet and understanding your personnel. You don’t have to pressure somebody way out at the 3-point line if you’re going to get called for a hand check or a bump. You can’t get those silly fouls.”
Those silly fouls often occur on ball screen hedges on the perimeter, a push in the back on a rebound or by lowering a shoulder on the offensive end to draw a charge.
Duke will present enough challenges on standard defensive plays with its drive-and-dish approach intent on creating trips to the foul line or open looks from beyond the arc. The Blue Devils have made 65 more free throws than their opponents have attempted, while ranking second in the ACC in made 3-pointers (226) and 3-point field goal percentage (.392).
“Brice and Isaiah have to be able to get out on the floor and play guys and get a hand up on the shot and still be able to play the drive and not get beat on a direct cut,” Williams said. “If you get beat and you make him make a banana cut, that kind of motion, then you’ve got an opportunity to get some help for you. They’ve got to make sure they don’t get beat on a direct cut.”
On the offensive end, UNC’s plan of attack is quite simple: pound the ball inside. As crafty as Ingram may be offensively, he’s still learning how to play defense as a college freshman. Plumlee is tied for the team lead in fouls (63) and has been saddled with at least four fouls in eight games this season.
“That’s what Coach has talked about,” sophomore wing Justin Jackson said. “He wants all of our bigs to not shoot any fadeaways or anything like that, to go to the basket because if you can get Marshall in foul trouble, they’re low in the big man area.”
While the Johnson-Hicks tandem may be fouling liabilities on the defensive end, they have proven to be quite effective in drawing fouls with the ball in their hands. In ACC play, Hicks leads the league in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (6.6), according to kenpom.com. Johnson ranks fifth with 5.8.
“We’ve got to do a nice job and make sure that those guys get low positions so they can use their size as an advantage when we’re bigger than the other guy and trying to play inside,” Williams said.
In a game of opposing strategies, whichever team blinks first will encounter a difficult path to victory.