Maybe it was because entertainment starved NBA fans, bereft of watching the Splash Bros or BOOGIE or Chris Kaman’s corpse for an entire goddamn week, were on the brink of insanity, but for the first time this season it felt like everyone was watching college basketball last night. And no, as captivating as Rakeem Christmas’s stellar performance was at the Carrier Dome, I’m not referring to Syracuse’s victory over the mightily unimpressive Louisville Cardinal.
Duke v North Carolina has always dwarfed all other college hoop rivalries, and last night’s 92-90 Blue Devil victory at Cameron Indoor Stadium only added to the lore that, according to Shane Ryan dates back 150 years. This one carried extra weight, being the first time these teams had met up since the passing of North Carolina coaching legend Dean Smith over a week ago.
Unlike many of the Dean vs. Duke battles however, this game, despite undeniably becoming an instant classic, left me leery about the title hopes of both teams, with less than a month remaining until the NCAA Tournament tips off.
While it wasn’t what undid them in the end, North Carolina’s first half is evidence why the Tar Heels aren’t being viewed as a legitimate title contender with just ten days until March. Getting beaten is one thing, but getting beaten at your own game, and looking completely lost as a result, is something else entirely. NC ranks 13th in the country in adjusted tempo according to KenPom.com, averaging 70.2 possessions per 40 minutes, more than any other team in the AP’s top 25. Despite being a poor three-point shooting team, the Tar Heels love to play at a breakneck pace, maximizing the transition abilities of guard Marcus Paige and forward J.P. Tokoto, while attempting to mask their not always apparent defensive deficiencies. Last night however, those deficiencies were on full display, with Blue Devil coach Mike Krzyzewski more than willing to match NC’s up-tempo style of play.
Duke was able to get out in transition consistently throughout the first half, taking advantage of missed field goal attempts and a few early Tar Heel turnovers by turning them into easy lay-ups on the other end. Even off Tar Heel makes, Duke managed to push the ball up-court before North Carolina could get set defensively, allowing the Blue Devils to enter the lane at will. North Carolina’s perimeter defenders were horrible at the point of attack, almost always finding themselves a half-step behind Duke’s own perimeter trio of Tyus Jones, Quinn Cook, and Justise Winslow. Pick and rolls were even more of a problem for the Tar Heels, with forward Kennedy Meeks hesitant to stray from Duke star center Jahlil Okafor and play help defense when Duke’s guards entered the paint. NC’s respect for the three-point shooting of Jones and Cook in these same pick and roll situations led to lots of chasing over screens, an art that can be effective when mastered correctly but will cause chaos if botched. In this specific case, there was far more botchery than mastery. Duke’s starting backcourt outscored Tar Heel starters, Paige and Justin Jackson, 44-7, a staggering figure that makes it truly shocking North Carolina was in contention at all, never mind leading by 10 with less than three minutes to play. And of course, this all comes without discussing Okafor’s post presence (we’ll get to that later) which produced multiple wide open three-point looks for Cook (who ended up hitting six on the night).
This isn’t a foreign problem for Roy Williams and his coaching staff; the Tar Heels have now lost four of their last five matchups, allowing over 80 points a game during the stretch. There are caveats that have to be acknowledged of course, if we want to give NC the fair rap it deserves. Firstly, this brutal five game stretch has included four road games and three top ten opponents (Duke, Virginia, and Louisville which has since dropped down to number 12), making it almost definite that things will only get easier from here for the Tar Heels. Secondly, using a simple statistic such as points allowed per game fails to recognize North Carolina’s aforementioned pace of play, making it inevitable that NC will allow more points than your average Division 1 team. And thirdly, two of these five contests went to overtime, meaning an extra free-throw here or a reversed call there and the Tar Heels would be 3-2 since January 31st, giving them a reasonable shot at a three seed come tourney time.
Now, attaining a three seed in March is essentially out of the realm of possibility, leaving North Carolina with more questions than answers. Sure they are capable of beating top tier talent, and yes, playing the nations second strongest schedule should prepare them for the horrors of March, but what happens when they find themselves up against a team with the offensive prowess of Duke, Virginia, or even Pittsburgh for that matter? It’s a quandary Roy Williams doesn’t want to encounter, but almost definitely will in the final month and a half of college basketball’s 2014-15 season.
Admitting to be leery of Duke’s title chances is a much more derisive opinion in the eyes of many, but not one that comes without legitimacy after last night’s absurd affair in Durham. It’s not that I doubt the Blue Devil’s ceiling, especially after what we saw them accomplish for stretches of the first half last night. Duke is capable of beating any team in the country on the right night, including the undefeated Kentucky Wildcats. Instead, I worry that Duke is vulnerable in too many places, and too easily susceptible to long lapses in effort on both ends of the floor, to string together six quality wins against the best the nation has to offer in March. Grantland’s Brian Phillips expressed this same fear last night on Twitter, worrying more about the road to the championship than the potential championship itself.
When Duke ceded the dictation of pace to North Carolina after halftime, their flaws became glaringly apparent almost immediately. The Blue Devils got killed in transition, lacking the urgency required to get back on time and giving NC way too many easy looks at the basket. These transition opportunities were the result of a sudden stagnation during Duke’s offensive possessions, leading to a bevy of turnovers and missed shots by the nation’s third most efficient offensive team. Part of this lapse in effectiveness could be attributed to the gimpyness of Okafor, who rolled his ankle late in the first half and never quite looked the same after briefly retreating to the locker room for treatment. However, even with Okafor commanding less frequent double teams as a result of his injury, the Tar Heel wings continued to shy off outside shooters in case Meeks or forward Joel James needed help containing the Duke big man. And instead of taking advantage by looking to Cook and Jones as he did in the first half, Okafor started forcing passes to Amile Jefferson in the paint, once again producing transition opportunities for the Tar Heels. The disappearance of Justice Winslow didn’t help (does it ever?), leading one to wonder why the Blue Devils didn’t, and don’t put Winslow and Okafor in more pick and roll/two man sets. This would give Winslow space to drive to the hoop while allowing Okafor to showcase his terrific passing abilities from the high post. More importantly, it would keep both players involved, meaning fewer stretches where Duke’s offense acts as if a switch has been turned off by a member of the opposing team’s coaching staff.
But it’s on the defensive end, just like the Tar Heels, where Duke’s main vulnerabilities lie. If there was ever a possession truly representative of the Blue Devil’s defensive woes, it was the one that occurred with just over five minutes remaining in regulation. NC reserve guard Joel Berry II drove right off a high pick and roll, taking not only his defender with him but his screeners man as well as he drove towards the baseline. After realizing he was being chased by multiple defenders, Berry circled under the rim and dished the ball to Kennedy Meeks. Immediately, both Duke defenders that had been trailing Berry became stuck in the paint, leaving the Tar Heel guard with an uncontested lane towards the corner. Meeks passed the ball back to Berry who knocked down the wide-open corner three, his only successful shot of the game in 24 minutes of play. Duke went from using two defenders to halt the drive of a backup freshman guard averaging 3.3 points per game, to leaving that same guard completely unencumbered on a three-point attempt in the span of about three seconds.
What’s most concerning is that three-pointers, Duke’s downfall in losses to Miami and NC St. earlier this year, were the least of Coach K’s worries as the second half progressed. The Blue Devil big man pair of Okafor and Jefferson got killed in the paint as NC used off-ball screens to yield deep post catches for Meeks, Tokoto, and Brice Johnson, all of whom scored 15 plus points on the night. The Tar Heels outscored Duke 62-40 in the paint per ESPN Stats & Info, while also dominating the Blue Devils on the offensive glass throughout the entire second half. Okafor was slow to provide help down low, something he struggles with even when 100%, leading to multiple put-backs and many easy lay-ins for the Tar Heel frontcourt. Duke knows they can be beat by teams who pair speed with three-point shooting, as does the rest of the college basketball community. But now the Blue Devils have revealed a second kind of kryptonite to be used against them, one that didn’t quite work for North Carolina last night, but just as easily could have if Paige and Jackson hadn’t crumpled under pressure in the waning moments of regulation.
This negative take on such a fantastically fun game ignored what was yet another impressive performance from Duke freshman Tyus Jones, particularly down the stretch. It ignored an amazing comeback by the Blue Devils, and a crazy overtime period that featured encouraging possessions from both teams. It (for the most part) ignored the re-emergence of J.P. Tokoto’s explosive offensive game, and it may have diminished the effect with which Jahlil Okafor’s dominant post-play and savvy passing (save for those couple second-half turnovers) helped lead to 49 Duke first half points.
But while last night was exciting even to the NBA starved fans, what the action told us about each team was ultimately more important than the excitement of the action itself. And while both Duke and North Carolina will be prominent players come March as they always tend to be, my doubts about the status of either team as a legitimate title contender were confirmed in what some are calling 2015’s game of the year.