CHAPEL HILL, NC — The snowpocalypse that hit North Carolina last week could not have had better timing for the Duke-North Carolina rivalry.
The additional week allowed the Tar Heels to put together another two impressive wins—against Pitt at home and on the road versus Florida State—and stretched their winning streak to seven.
Duke had its worst performance in recent weeks over the weekend against Maryland, but the luck of the roll went the way of the Blue Devils, and now they're ranked in the Top Five for the first time since the second week of the season.
Duke-UNC is always a must-watch, but now it deserves our attention for more than just the juiciness of the rivalry.
The Blue Devils are playing at such a high level on the offensive end that they are once again in the national title conversation. The Tar Heels are playing well enough on both ends that their early-season upsets of Louisville, Michigan State and Kentucky are looking a lot less fluky.
But even this far into the season, there's a hint of skepticism that surrounds each team. Thursday's matchup could help provide a more realistic snapshot of where each team is as March approaches.
Are the Heels Really Back?
The pessimist would look at UNC's seven straight wins and point out the best win during that stretch was at home against Pitt.
The Panthers are really good at beating mediocre teams, but they sport a crummy record against the top teams in whatever metric you're using. They're 0-6 against the RPI Top 25 and 0-6 against the kenpom.com Top 25.
Only the Heel-haters, however, could watch this team right now and ignore that they're looking much more like that version that showed its potential in big games early on.
"I really like my team," Roy Williams said last week. "I liked them when we were getting kicked in the face, because I kept thinking we were going to get better."
It took some time—which is understandable considering the P.J. Hairston drama—but the Heels have finally started to figure out their roles, particularly on the offensive end.
Williams watched as his team was uncharacteristically inconsistent, yet those early wins proved there was something there. And during this winning streak, UNC has been able to count on four things:
- Marcus Paige is going to score. This has been the case most of the year, but he did hit a midseason slump in early January. He's averaged 18.3 points in the seven wins.
- James Michael McAdoo is going to bring great energy and get his points. Williams said that McAdoo's intensity has rubbed off on his teammates. The junior forward, who has been inconsistent most of his career, averaged 18.2 points over the first six games until he went scoreless in a foul-plagued 13 minutes on Monday at Florida State.
- The Heels will get back a good number of their misses. They have rebounded 40.1 percent of their missed shots in the last seven games.
- The offense will be balanced with two of the role players—out of Leslie McDonald, Kennedy Meeks, Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto—providing scoring. Meeks and Johnson, for instance, made McAdoo's foul problems a non-issue against Florida State, combining for 37 points.
The Heels now have an identity on offense. Paige and McDonald have not always shot the ball great from outside, but they at least provide enough of a threat to give McAdoo, Johnson or Meeks room to operate in the post. And their size, which overwhelms most opponents, has become a huge plus.
That has been especially true on the defensive end, where these Tar Heels have the potential to be one of the best defenses Williams has coached in his 11 seasons in Chapel Hill.
Opponents have been either hesitant to attack the basket because of all that length, or those that have tried haven't had the best of luck.
|UNC Opponents' Shots at the Rim (Last Seven Games)|
|FGM/FGA at rim|
The Heels have done a great job defending the perimeter as well, which will be a big key against Duke. During the winning streak, opponents are shooting 28.9 percent from deep, and the Heels have not allowed more than six threes in a game.
Effort, as much as execution, has made a big difference.
"We've got a much greater sense of urgency than we had earlier, which is the biggest thing," Williams said. "We're playing with our heart...but we're also playing with our brain. I think the kids genuinely care about how their teammates are doing. It's not as much a 'me-me-me' focus as culture tends to make basketball these days."
Flirting with Elite
The Blue Devils have now won nine of 10 with the one loss coming in overtime on the road at Syracuse. Their offense and Creighton's continues to trade spots as the most efficient unit of the last 11 years, according to Ken Pomeroy's database (subscription required).
Even with an offense that is consistently performing at an elite level, head coach Mike Krzyzewski said last week that he has more of a fear of losing than he had last season.
"We don't have a lot of depth in the frontcourt," Krzyzewski said. "We're not a big and strong team, and we have to shoot well to win. We have shot really well. There's just more opportunities to lose with this team, and when you're coaching, you'd like to reduce the number of ways you can lose."
Don't feel too bad for Coach K. His math has multiplied the likelihood of winning.
It's a pretty simple formula: Shoot a lot of threes, make threes and do everything possible to reduce the number of threes from your opponent.
The Blue Devils are attempting a higher percentage of their shots from three (39.7 percent) than any Duke team since J.J. Redick's 2004-05 squad. In ACC play, that number has gone up to 42.1 percent.
When you combine all of those attempts with great marksmanship—42 percent during ACC play—that's how the Blue Devils are scoring at a historic pace.
It also helps when you have one of the best scorers in college basketball operating inside the arc. Jabari Parker has reduced his three-point attempts; he's taken only nine threes in the last five games after averaging 3.6 attempts per game up until that point. Parker has made it a priority to attack the paint, which often opens things up for Duke's shooters.
Not only is Coach K orchestrating a brilliant offensive attack, but his motivational tactics seem to working as well.
All of that talk about Duke being susceptible to lose?
It's spot on. Syracuse had its way inside—scoring 42 points in the paint—and protecting the rim has been an issue. But the challenge to protect the paint and how they lost against Syracuse has been something the Blue Devils have taken personally.
"After the Syracuse loss, I think we were angry," Quinn Cook said. "We thought we deserved to win."
On Thursday, neither team will be lacking for motivation.
It should come down to a battle of styles. Can the Heels, with the best three-point defense in the ACC (30.7 percent in league play), keep the Blue Devils from lighting up the perimeter? Can Duke's undersized frontline slow UNC's army of big men?
At this point in the year with UNC playing to its potential, the game is now a toss-up. (Pomeroy predicts the Blue Devils will win by one.)
Last week's storm may have led to some inconvenience, but it only added to the buildup of the greatest rivalry in college basketball.
C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR.
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