UNC vs. Duke: The Ultimate Final Four preview
For the first time in the illustrious history of college basketball’s best rivalry, Duke and North Carolina are set to tip it off at the Final Four in New Orleans on Saturday night.
Who has the edge? Saturday Road breaks it down below, providing the ultimate primer on the biggest Duke-North Carolina game in history.
The matchup will be the third this season between the rivals separated by just 8 geographical miles but an ocean of discontent. The teams split the regular season tilts, with Duke routing North Carolina in Chapel Hill in early February only to have the Tar Heels return the favor in early March by manhandling Duke in Mike Krzyzewski’s final game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Now, for one final time, it’s Coach K against UNC, and this time, the stakes are higher than ever, with the winner advancing to the national championship game and the loser going home. If Duke loses, it’s also the end of the Krzyzewski era, though that’s a reality that likely won’t sink in until we see Jon Scheyer on the sidelines without Coach K next November.
Despite Carolina’s convincing win at Cameron Indoor Stadium on March 5, Vegas sees Duke as a moderate favorite. The Blue Devils are 4-point favorites, which means Vegas expects a close game, but the money line for a North Carolina victory is +170, which means Vegas thinks the Tar Heels only win 1 out of about 3 matchups. Ironically, if Duke wins, 1 out of 3 against Duke is exactly what the Tar Heels will have accomplished this season.
The Matchup, part I: Will Duke stick with the zone defense that keyed their Sweet 16 and Elite 8 wins?
Duke enters the Final Four ranked just 45th nationally in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, per KenPom. That means the Blue Devils have th3e worst defense by the metrics at the Final Four. It’s also a stark contrast to Duke’s 3 other Final Four teams (2004, 2010, 2015) in the KenPom era, which dates to 2002. In 2004, Duke brought the 3rd-ranked KenPom defense to the Final Four. In 2010 and 2015, Duke won national championships with defenses ranked 5th and 11th nationally. Those are elite numbers; this team is far from elite defensively.
The largest reason for Duke’s defensive issues has been that they struggle to protect driving lanes in their vintage man-to-man defense. Late in the season, this resulted in either too much stress on Mark Williams, by far Duke’s best defensive player, to both guard ball screens and then recover to make plays at the rim, as well as too many drive-and-kick opportunities for opposing shooters.
To grapple with that, Krzyzewski has predominantly played zone defense since the Blue Devils fell behind early in the Sweet 16 matchup against Texas Tech. The Blue Devils proved adept at it, especially against Arkansas, who they suffocated in the second half, limiting the Hogs to just 21 points over the first 14:30 of the second frame and putting the game to bed well before the final media timeout.
Duke went to a zone and it was effective…what a world.
— Andrew Hammond (@ahammFreePress) March 25, 2022
In the zone, Williams can stay pinned near the bucket, the ultimate rim protector and the biggest reason Duke doesn’t struggle to rebound out of the zone defense, which is a zone defense weakness. Knowing they had a safe rim protector, Duke could extend and take away the perimeter from an Arkansas team that didn’t shoot well anyway.
And therein lies the rub: Duke’s zone was highly effective against Texas Tech and Arkansas, but both of those teams are hard-nosed defensive basketball teams that can struggle to score. Everyone at the Final Four this season can shoot and score. Will Duke’s zone hold up?
It might need to. North Carolina eviscerated Duke’s man-to-man defense in their win over the Blue Devils on March 5. The Tar Heels scored 55 points in the second half of that game while shooting a microwave hot 59%. The Tar Heels are lethal in the pick and roll, and if Williams is dragged away to guard ball screens in Duke’s traditional man defense, well, North Carolina will know what to do.
This pick & roll was a thing of beauty. Caleb Love drags the defenders and just buys time until Armando Bacot gets to the open window. Beautiful pocket pass. Remember, Duke had no answer for this in Cameron Indoor. @HeelIllustrated pic.twitter.com/bJuCzadUrW
— David Sisk (@CoachDavidSisk) March 30, 2022
This could force the Blue Devils to play zone, which could be advantage UNC if — and this the big if — UNC hits its shots from beyond the arc. In Carolina’s upset wins over Baylor and UCLA, the Tar Heels made 21 3-pointers and shot a solid 37.5%. The Tar Heels were even better (39.5%) in their win over Duke at Cameron Indoor. How the Tar Heels shoot against Duke’s zone is perhaps the game’s pivotal matchup.
The Matchup, part II: Duke containing Brady Manek vs. UNC containing Paolo Banchero’s supporting cast
When Duke blasted North Carolina in the Dean Smith Center in February, the only problem the Tar Heels posed that the Blue Devils had no answer to was Brady Manek. The transfer hit 6-of-10 shots from deep and willed the Tar Heels back into the game, albeit only briefly, after Duke stormed to a 29-8 lead. Manek was also the star of North Carolina’s show when the Tar Heels upset Duke in March, as the super senior posted a double-double with 20 points and 10 rebounds. Manek is 11-for-20 from deep against Duke this season, ruthlessly lethal numbers.
Duke has to do a better job on Manek in Round 3, but if Duke plays zone, that’s easier said than done. The Tar Heels space the floor beautifully with a number of elite shooters, including RJ Davis, who has come on strong since mid-February, scored 30 in North Carolina’s win over defending national champion Baylor, and was an efficient 7-for-12 from the floor with 21 points in UNC’s March win at Duke. In their man-to-man defense, Duke denies the perimeter at a high level (only 33% of opponent shots come from the 3-point line against Duke, and the number slips to 28% against man defense, best among Final Four teams). If Duke abandons man, they risk any number of North Carolina’s shooters heating up, and Manek, who can play with his back to the basket, bust up the middle of a zone or shoot over you, is the biggest of Carolina’s matchup problems.
The Blue Devils, meanwhile, present a host of problems of their own. Duke has the best offense at a Final Four filled with elite offenses, and the analytics say this Blue Devils offense is among the best in college basketball history. Not only does Duke rank No. 1 nationally in KenPom Adjusted Offensive Efficiency, they would rank in the top 10 (8th) among KenPom offenses in the KenPom era!
How do they do it? For one, they don’t turn the ball over. Duke ranks in the top 25 nationally in turnover rate, and they are in the top 10 in non-steal turnover rate, meaning they don’t commit unforced errors. The Blue Devils also clean up their misses, with an offensive rebounding rate of 31.7%, a very good number. But beyond those staples, Duke is mainly so good because they have multiple capable ball handlers, meaning they can initiate offense from anywhere on the floor.
Yes, the Blue Devils are best when future top 5 NBA Draft pick Paolo Banchero is the sun around which their offense orbits. The Duke freshman averages 17 points and 8 rebounds per game and has essentially replicated those numbers in the Big Dance. But Duke is devastating offensively because the supporting cast around Banchero can crush you.
Duke has terrific shooters in Wendell Moore Jr. and AJ Griffin (more below on him) and their weakest shooter, Jeremy Roach, has been spectacular in the NCAA Tournament, whether he’s hitting a clutch two like this in a 1-on-1:
Jeremy Roach. Mr. March. pic.twitter.com/XrJrk49rjw
— Ryan Lommen (@TheDukeNation) March 25, 2022
Or he is hitting a go-ahead three with a man in his face against Michigan State like this one:
Jeremy Roach BANG. THIS GAME!!! pic.twitter.com/qwcWS9xuQ2
— Barstool Sports (@barstoolsports) March 20, 2022
North Carolina will doubtlessly want to slow Banchero, or deny him the basketball as often as possible. Roach’s sterling play has been the difference for the Blue Devils since the loss to UNC on March 5. Their offense looks completely different with him operating calmly as the floor general, and if he is on Saturday night, the Blue Devils will be terribly difficult for UNC to guard.
The Matchup, Part III: Battle of the Bigs
Duke’s Mark Williams and North Carolina’s Armando Bacot give this Final Four game a true battle of the titans inside.
Williams has given Duke an edge in the paint all season, but he’s been even better of late and quietly been the star of Duke’s NCAA Tournament run. Williams had a double-double (12, 12) along with 3 blocks in the Elite 8 win over Arkansas, helping Duke outscore the physical Razorbacks 46-34 in the paint. He went for 16 and 8, with another 3 blocks, in the Sweet 16 victory over Texas Tech, and was even better in Duke’s comeback win over Michigan State, scoring 15 points, grabbing 8 rebounds and swatting 5 shots.
Williams has 16 blocks for the NCAA Tournament, making it unlikely he’ll catch Jeff Withey of Kansas for the NCAA Tournament blocks record of 31. But he’s still the best defensive player the Blue Devils have and he’s also a huge reason Duke has not been bullied by the Tar Heels on the glass.
North Carolina arrives at the Final Four 1 of the top 5 rebounding teams in the country, but in 2 games with Duke, the Blue Devils, paced by Williams, have grabbed 13 more total rebounds, including a dominating 40-24 edge at UNC in February. Does Williams have one more tremendous effort in him for Saturday?
Bacot has been a double-double machine. He has been North Carolina’s best player all season and while the Tar Heels typically go as point guard Caleb Love goes, it’s difficult to imagine anyone but Bacot winning Most Outstanding Player of the NCAA Tournament if North Carolina is the last team standing Monday night.
In 4 NCAA Tournament games, Bacot has posted 4 double-doubles, including his monstrous 20-point and 22-rebound effort in the dominating win over Saint Peter’s in the Elite 8. He had 15 points and 16 rebounds in the win over Baylor, and it was his ability to maintain position amongst Baylor’s physical trees that ultimately helped UNC seal the game in overtime.
Armando Bacot tips in the put-back to give UNC a 5 point lead late! pic.twitter.com/EGetATcpLY
— Aram Cannuscio (@AC__Hoops) March 26, 2022
Bacot was a magnificent 10-for-11 from the floor with 23 points and 7 rebounds in Carolina’s win at Duke in March. He was much less effective when Duke won in February, held to a season-low 5 rebounds. North Carolina can only win Saturday if they get the version of Bacot the country has watched over the past month.
The X-Factors: AJ Griffin of Duke and UNC’s foul trouble
Griffin is Duke’s X-Factor because the disparity of his performances against North Carolina this season tracks the results of the games almost precisely. In Chapel Hill, Griffin went nuts. The freshman scored 27 points and connected on 8-of-11 shots, including 3-of-6 from deep, to pace a 20-point win. On Coach K Night in Durham, Griffin was a no-show. He had 5 points, was just 2-for-5 from the field and 1-for-3 from distance, and had Duke’s worst box plus-minus rating in a 13-point loss.
Griffin is the “other” lottery pick on Duke’s roster, a player projected to be drafted anywhere from 5th to 10th, depending on your preferred Mock Draft. He is capable of being the difference in a basketball game, and already has been in this rivalry. If the excellent version of Griffin shows up Saturday, it could be the difference in the game.
Foul trouble seems more obvious, because well, foul trouble is always a factor in a basketball game.
But an interesting thing happened in North Carolina’s win at Duke that magnifies the importance of foul trouble on Saturday night. Hubert Davis elected to play only his starting 5 in the second half. The move paid off, as the Tar Heels blitzed the Blue Devils in the second half to win the game. Will Davis roll the dice and play just his starters again? It’s the Final Four, so you’d have to think he’ll strongly consider it. But foul trouble could prevent that from being viable.
The Prediction: North Carolina 82, Duke 78
The Tar Heels seem like a team of destiny at this point. An 8 seed with wins over a 1 seed in defending champ Baylor and a 4 seed in UCLA that returned the heart and soul of a Final Four team the year before? That’s impressive stuff. Combine that with the fact that they know they can beat Duke in any environment, given their win in Durham on Coach K’s farewell night, and North Carolina will be brimming with confidence.
Duke won’t go down easily. Setting aside the intangibles they are playing for due to Krzyzewski’s pending retirement, the Blue Devils are playing their best basketball at the right time. Plus, Duke has defied conventional wisdom in reaching the Final Four. The thought before the NCAA Tournament was that the team with the best chance to upend Duke would be a physical team that plays elite defense. Duke proved that line of thinking wrong, defeating the nation’s best defense in Texas Tech in the Sweet 16 and another elite defensive squad in Arkansas in the Elite 8.
But the one thing Duke hasn’t done in the NCAA Tournament is defeat a great offensive team. The best offense Duke has faced in the NCAA Tournament? Michigan State, which ranks 31st in offensive efficiency and gave Duke the biggest scare in the Round of 32. The other offenses all rank outside of the Top 40, and Arkansas and Cal-State Fullerton are outside of the top 50. Put plainly, Duke hasn’t seen an elite offense since the ACC Tournament final, when they surrendered 82 points to Virginia Tech. Before that, the best offense they faced was — you guessed it — UNC, which dropped 94 in Durham on Coach K Night.
In the end, Duke won’t get enough stops, and North Carolina will advance to the program’s 12th national championship game by ending the career of the great Mike Krzyzewski.