CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 8 North Carolina will continue to rely on its post advantage at No. 18 Duke on Thursday, while the Blue Devils will attempt to counter with its perimeter play.
It’s a storyline that has stood the test of this rivalry over the past decade. UNC’s commitment to playing inside-out versus Duke’s preference to stretch the floor to create open looks from deep or lanes to penetrate.
“It’s a double-edged sword,” Roy Williams told reporters on Tuesday. “We may have an advantage, but that gives them an advantage because one of our big guys has to be running around guarding a guy that’s on the 3-point line. So which factor of the game is going to be the most dominant?”
UNC executed in the post in both games against Duke last season – a 74-73 home loss and a 76-72 road win – outscoring its rival 94-54 in points in the paint and 45-19 in second-chance points. Duke made 20 3-pointers on 37.7 percent shooting. UNC’s loss at home, a game in which it led by eight points with under seven minutes to play, was due in large part to four empty possessions out of its final five.
Senior center Kennedy Meeks, who ranks fourth nationally in offensive rebounding percentage (17.4) and third in the ACC in rebounding (9.4), highlighted UNC’s ability to generate more possessions with offensive rebounds as the key to the game. The Tar Heels lead the nation in offensive rebounding percentage (42.8), according to kenpom.com, and are outscoring their opponents, 18.3-8.2, in second-chance points.
“I think that would be a big-time disappointment for us if we don’t outrebound them just because of how much we hit the boards,” Meeks said.
UNC has outrebounded its opponent in all but two of its 25 games this season, good for a nation’s best plus-13.7 differential. Duke has also been effective on the glass, ranking fifth in the ACC in rebounding margin (plus-5.3).
Williams stressed the need for his bigs to be more efficient in the post as his team ventures into the second half of ACC play, and that’s likely a determining factor in Thursday’s outcome. Dominate the boards and capitalize on second-chance opportunities, and the Tar Heels will be able to stick to its game plan for 40 minutes. Failure to achieve that goal, and Williams may be forced to change his approach.
“It’s just being prepared,” senior forward Isaiah Hicks said. “Me, Kennedy, Tony [Bradley] and Luke [Maye] know that most teams are going to have four perimeter players out there, possibly all five. We just have to be prepared to be out there guarding the perimeter and just make sure we take advantage of our size or else we need to go small. If we can’t take advantage and they’re getting what they want on the offensive end, we may as well just go small.”
One positive this season that’s actually led to some inconsistency in pounding the ball into the post has been UNC’s improved shooting ability from outside. A year removed from the worst 3-point shooting percentage in school history, the Tar Heels are hitting at a 37.5 percent clip. That success has made it easier to settle for outside shots against teams that make entry passes difficult, whether by zone looks or aggressiveness in the passing lanes.
“We just have to move a little bit better on the perimeter and be able to get the ball inside whenever we get an opportunity,” junior point guard Joel Berry said. “That’s always our advantage. If we can get it down to them, get their bigs in foul trouble and force them to go small to where maybe they’ll have [Jayson] Tatum guarding Isaiah in the post, that’s what we want.”
UNC is 19-1 on the season when winning both the points in the paint and second-chance points categories.