The Tar Heels may have had an easy test in their last game as they annihilated 15th-seeded Saint Peter’s. But before that game, they dominated Marquette, beat defending champion Baylor, and then upended UCLA.
Duke’s current run is also impressive. Many refused to give this team a chance due to its late-season struggles. But the Blue Devils have beaten some difficult opponents such as Texas Tech. Defeating Michigan State also required guts and determination in the waning minutes.
For reasons that I will explain, you should play the total for this college basketball game.
North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Duke Blue Devils
Saturday, April 2, 2022 – 08:49 PM EDT at Caesars Superdome
In Coach K’s final home game, North Carolina torched Duke’s defense with 94 points. My argument for this NCAAB pick is that we see a repeat performance from the Tar Heel defense. Now, we see results change all the time, but there are also instances of repetition.
Results change when the losing team makes effective adjustments. Results will likely stay the same when the losing team lacks either the coaching capacity or the personnel capacity to do things differently in a productive manner.
I will make the case that Duke players lack the quality to defend well enough against the Tar Heel defense. They certainly tried to make adjustments against a Tar Heel offense that was repeatedly doing the same thing over and over again.
UNC ran high ball-screen after high ball-screen. Blue Devil defenders would sometimes sag off, they would sometimes switch in a small-ball lineup, they would alternate between more passive and more aggressive ball screen coverage tactics. But it was all to no avail.
You’ve probably seen defensive highlights of individual Duke players where they look very good. I saw one tweet, for example, touting Paolo Banchero’s defensive abilities along the perimeter.
While Banchero’s lateral movement looks solid, you can’t forget that this one-on-one matchup does not exist in a vacuum but is part of an entire dynamic. In the play, you see that Banchero has defenders positioned well behind him so that he can guard his man more closely.
Plus, Banchero benefits from the indecisiveness of the opposing ball-handler generated by Duke’s well-positioned help-defense and its well-prepared interior defense.
Where’s the Help?
In the game against North Carolina, Banchero was repeatedly powerless when he had to guard a Tar Heel ball-handler behind the perimeter. Part of this powerlessness is a product of the shiftiness and quickness of Tar Heel ball-handlers.
North Carolina has developed guards Caleb Love and R.J. Davis into avid ball-handlers. While it’s Davis who has settled into the point guard position, both are dangerous with the ball in their hands as they are quick and shifty.
Even Leaky Black, though known for his defense, showcases his playmaking ability as evident in his isolation situations against the Blue Devils. The individual quickness, ball-handling, and iso playmaking of Tar Heel ball-handlers place a higher burden on the Blue Devil’s help defense.
Plus, North Carolina consistently managed to stretch out the Duke defense, creating wide areas of space for Tar Heel ball-handlers who can already thrive with less space.
Off a ball screen, Armando Bacot will streak towards the basket, but power forward Brady Manek will also be available for a shot behind the arc. UNC will do some high-low actions with both players involved, which is effective against a Blue Devil defense that struggles when its rim protectors are situated away from the basket.
Virginia and Texas Tech Are Different
In the first meeting between Duke and Virginia, a typically weak Virginia offense thrived as it employed cuts and other actions to generate scoring at the basket before Duke rim protectors could contest their shot attempts.
When both teams played each other again, Duke utilized a compact style of defense that forced Virginia to beat it from deep. Duke did enough on defense to win the game because Virginia is horribly inefficient from deep.
The Blue Devils cannot pursue such a strategy against North Carolina because the Tar Heels own the nation’s 51st-best three-point percentage. When Duke recently played Texas Tech, the Blue Devils switched to a zone, which it had hardly done in the regular season.
Texas Tech began shredding this zone with cuts and another movement. Duke, then, shrank its zone to make it more compact. Because Texas Tech is inefficient from deep, this strategy could work. But Manek, Love, and Davis all shoot well over 37 percent from deep. They would torch a zone defense.
Like and Not Like Virginia Tech
I am not in the least suggesting that UNC will perform well on offense simply because it did so in the last game against Saint Peter’s. Rather, the Tar Heels’ success fits larger patterns that other teams illuminate.
Virginia Tech most recently scored 82 points in its win over Duke. In that game, the Hokies resembled North Carolina in the sense that they utilized the versatility of their personnel to spread Duke out.
The Blue Devil defense repeatedly struggles when it is spread out because its help defense will have a harder time arriving at the point of attack. Even when North Carolina wasn’t spreading Duke out on individual plays, Blue Devil defenders were too slow to position themselves in the right place or to help.
This slowness, lack of awareness, and lack of chemistry on defense made the Blue Devils so unlike a Virginia Tech defense that limited North Carolina in the ACC Tournament because it was quick and aware in its help defense, that had a center in Keve Aluma who stood strong when switched onto Tar Heel ball-handlers, and that used good communication to make quick and effective decisions as a team defense.
One may worry that I am painting North Carolina as having this unrealistically god-like offense. But the Tar Heels did torch Baylor with 80 points in regulation before, in the next Tournament game, inflicting UCLA with one of its highest-scoring totals allowed this season despite underperforming from deep. Both the Bear and Bruin defenses rank top-15 nationally in efficiency.
North Carolina does have a great offense. Its combination of individual playmakers, versatility, inside-out play, discipline, and comfort in the ball-screen game more than suffice to damage Duke and its repeatedly problematic defense.
Duke’s Offense Is Also Really Good
But Duke’s offense is also great. In fact, the Blue Devils have the nation’s most efficient offense. Their offense has been carrying them during this tournament run. Most recently, they scored 78 points against very tough Texas Tech and Arkansas defenses.
The Red Raiders rank number one nationally in defensive efficiency while Arkansas ranks number 11th nationally in the category.
When the Blue Devils played UNC, they scored 81 points. I think they could have scored more because they wasted so many possessions with bad shots, turnovers, an emphasis on iso ball at the cost of ball movement, and a lack of composure, impatience, and desperation when UNC grew a lead.
Duke’s offense has basically been unstoppable because it can hurt a defense in so many ways. Texas Tech, for example, chose on defense to emphasize Banchero whose productivity was lagging as a result of the extra attention he was receiving from Texas Tech’s defense.
However, Banchero still managed 22 points in that game as Duke did a lot of things to free him up. The Blue Devils used the threat posed by their shooters to free up space inside.
They rank 29th nationally in three-point percentage, so they can position their shooters in places that make it hard for any defense to tag a roller to the basket. Off interior screens or high-low actions or the like, a Duke big man can make his way to the basket.
It is hard to account for this movement and for the movement of guys like AJ Griffin, who shoots 45.8 percent from deep, behind the arc. A defense that is shifting and compensating hard for successes that Duke players will have inside or outside the arc will ultimately create more room for a dynamic guy like Banchero who can score from anywhere.
Duke simply needs to have more composure and, via the combination of its rim-attackers and shooters, it can exceed the 81 points that it amassed against North Carolina. One source of this composure will be point guard Jeremy Roach’s direction. The super shifty point guard has been a clutch x-factor in March.
He’ll have an even easier time than he did lately because the Tar Heel defense does not force turnovers. The lack of ball pressure from the defense plus Roach’s ability to initiate offense with his unique athletic skill set makes for a lethal combo. Roach, though, struggled to keep Tar Heel ball-handlers in front of him.
Like Banchero, he is hurt by UNC’s abundance of sneaky and explosive playmaking ball-handlers, its stretch four, its general ability to stretch out the defense, the slowness of Duke’s help defenders, and its inside-out game. For the above reasons, expect a high-scoring game for your best bets.
NCAAB Pick: Over 151 (-110) with Bet365