In the Year of the Big, the battle of the bigs will decide North Carolina and Duke
Before the 2022-2023 college basketball season began, forecasters and fans alike rightly dubbed this season “The Year of the Big.”
Take any given college basketball season this century, and try to find one where there are so many dominant post players. From the reigning Wooden Award winner Oscar Tshiebwe at Kentucky to Zach Edey, the giant who stars for No. 1 Purdue, the sport is littered with an embarrassment of frontcourt riches.
North Carolina, the preseason No. 1, is no different. The Tar Heels are led by Armando Bacot, who is now the program’s all-time leader in rebounds and double-doubles, marks he set last month. Duke? The Blue Devils were supposed to be a team led by guards and wings, with junior point guard turned off-ball guard Jeremy Roach and Dariq Whitehead, the No. 2 recruit in the Class of 2022, per 247, leading the way.
Instead, Duke has been led by a big. Kyle Filipowski, also a 5-star recruit, has shined for the Blue Devils. While Filipowski has played the bulk of his minutes at the 5, he’s also stretched out at the 4, giving Duke a frontcourt that also features reliable veteran Ryan Young and 5-star freshman Dereck Lively II.
Saturday night, when Duke and North Carolina meet for the first time this season, Duke’s reshuffled, remarkably talented frontcourt will match up with North Carolina’s All-American candidate in a duel that could decide the game.
So much, I suppose, for guards being the thing that wins big-time college basketball games.
We know what to expect from North Carolina. Bacot averages 31.6 minutes per game and barring foul trouble, he’ll likely man the 5 spot for longer than that Saturday night at Duke.
The key for Duke will likely be just how Jon Scheyer manages his rotations against Bacot. On the season, Filipowski has played 47% of his possessions at the 5, but has been deployed recently more frequently at the 4, where he has played in 18% of Duke’s lineups over the past 5 games, per KenPom. That change is mostly due to the emergence of Lively as a viable option for lengthier minutes. Lively battled injuries and a steeper learning curve than Filipowski, but as evidenced in his past 4 games, where he has posted double-digit rebounds and 4-plus blocks twice, he is growing.
Lively gives up bulk to Bacot, but if he can provide quality minutes, the duo could bang Bacot into submission. If Scheyer needs an even bigger body to get physical with the Tar Heels’ big man, Ryan Young awaits, though he’s played more often at the 4 this season. In any event, Duke’s largest advantage is that it has 3 bodies to roll at Bacot in waves, and Hubert Davis has been reluctant to play Jalen Washington, Bacot’s primary backup, for more than a few minutes a game in league play.
Filipowski is the most intriguing of Duke’s bigs, simply because of his flexibility.
Duke’s leading scorer at 15.8 points per game, Filipowski is shooting 29% from beyond the arc on reasonable volume (23-for-80), which isn’t great but for perspective, is a better 3-point percentage than that of North Carolina’s explosive guard, Caleb Love. Filipowski’s pick-and-pop dagger sealed Duke’s win Tuesday night over Wake Forest, the latest sign that Filipowski isn’t afraid to let it fly, whatever the moment.
🗡️🗡️🗡️🗡️ @kylefilipowski pic.twitter.com/MXZekU7d8U
— Duke Men’s Basketball (@DukeMBB) February 1, 2023
Filipowski is also sturdy enough with his handles that he can draw you away from the basket and hit a 3 off the bounce.
Kyle Filipowski step back three. pic.twitter.com/VKjrpEolKi
— BlueDevilStop (@BlueDevilStop) December 4, 2022
The big man can also score at the tin, and he’s a master at drawing contact, ranking 46th in the country in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, per KenPom.
Defensively, Filipowski is the best rebounder Bacot has faced since the Alabama game, as the freshman ranks 23rd in the country in defensive rebounding percentage and in the top 200 on the offensive glass. Those aren’t “Bacot” numbers, but they are in the vicinity. And they’re necessary, too. Remember, Bacot had 21 rebounds — 8 offensive — in UNC’s epic victory in last year’s Final Four.
Throw in Lively’s shot blocking prowess and the all-around sturdiness of Young, and this is Bacot’s biggest test this season.
Of course, Bacot is no stranger to dealing with multiple talented bigs. He managed against UCLA in last season’s NCAA Tournament and battled Paolo Banchero (whom he defended on 50% of Banchero’s post-ups), Theo John, and Mark Williams to a standstill on three occasions a season ago. It’s just that this group is better, at least from a “pure post talent” standpoint, than the Williams and John duo. That doesn’t mean that Filipowski, Lively II, and Young will win their duel with Bacot; it just means they have the numbers to wear him out.
The bad news for Duke fans is that this young group hasn’t held up against All-American caliber frontcourts all that well this season. Purdue’s Edey ate the Blue Devils alive in the PK 85 Phil Knight Legacy championship, scoring 21 points and grabbing 12 rebounds in a comfortable Boilermakers win. In the semifinal of the same tournament, however, Duke did get the better of Xavier’s capable frontcourt duo of Jack Nunge and Zach Freemantle, limiting the Musketeers bigs to just 9 points on 2-13 shooting from the field. Strength in numbers can work, but hasn’t yet against a great individual big.
Bacot, meanwhile, has had his moments against Duke over the past 2 seasons. He fouled out in the Final Four, but not before scoring 11 points and grabbing a staggering 21 rebounds in the Carolina victory. Bacot leads the ACC in PER rating, rebounds per game, and offensive rebounds, and he ranks second in points per game and fourth in field goal percentage. He is brutally difficult to breakdown defensively, even when you manage to get deep on the entry pass.
Watch UNC’s Armando Bacot (@iget_buckets35) straight up take this ball from NC State’s DJ Burns (& then talk to him about it 🤣). pic.twitter.com/uACEIYZR1Q
— Isaac Schade (@isaacschade) January 21, 2023
Bacot’s on-ball defense grades out as excellent this season, per Hoops Lens, and he’ll make Kyle Filipowski or Lively display a mastery of post movement if Duke hopes to score much on traditional frontcourt sets. Whether the Blue Devils can find ways to either get Bacot in foul trouble or wear him down will be key, because when Bacot isn’t fatigued and isn’t fouling, the Tar Heels are special. Bacot leads the Heels in plus/minus rating this year as well, and he ranks second, behind only Edey, in that category nationally. That’s a daunting challenge for Duke, but not one the Blue Devils, who remain unbeaten at home, can’t manage.
In the year of the big, it’s fitting that the first installment of college basketball’s best rivalry will feature a battle of bigs.
The winner of that battle likely wins the game Saturday night.