No. 8 NORTH CAROLINA at No. 1 DUKE, 9:00 p.m. (ESPN)
- VEGAS LINES: Duke (-9), 166
- VEGAS IMPLIED SCORE: Duke 87.5, North Carolina: 78.5
- KENPOM PROJECTION: Duke 90, UNC 79
- TORVIK PROJECTION: Duke 93, UNC 82
- HASLAMETRICS PROJECTION: Duke 94, UNC 82
The first battle between the two biggest brands in the ACC will take place on Wednesday night, and it promises to be one of the most entertaining games of the season even if it’s hard to imagine the Tar Heels walking into Cameron Indoor Stadium and picking up a win.
Before we even think about getting into the matchups, let’s dive into the projections. KenPom, Torvik and Haslametrics all project Duke to win by double digits with totals somewhere between 169 and 176. The line opened at Duke (-9) with a total of 166, and while that may seem like a massive number to get to, what we have to keep in mind here is that both of these teams want to run, run, run.
North Carolina plays at the fifth-fastest tempo in the country, according to KenPom. Duke ranks 18th in pace. North Carolina plays with the third-shortest offensive possessions in college basketball. Duke ranks 11th in that category. North Carolina’s offense is entirely built around their primary break which leads into a secondary break, where the Tar Heels look for quick actions out of an offense that are dictated by what Coby White decides to do with the ball when he gets it over halfcourt. Duke’s pace numbers are so high because of how many live-ball turnovers they force and how often those turnovers lead to easy layups at the other end of the floor.
Long story short, I think the over here is the best bet, although I will be curious to see if and where the line moves. Part of me hopes that people will see that number, assume that there is no possible way that number can hit and bet it down.
In terms of what to do with the line, I still tend to lean Duke.
For starters, so much of the success North Carolina has had this season has come from Coby White being awesome. There really isn’t much analysis that needs to be done when a potential top 20 pick finds a rhythm and pops off for 25 points. That’s what he did in the win over Virginia Tech. It’s what he did to save UNC against Miami. He’s going to be asked to deal with the defense of Tre Jones, and while the legend Jones’ defensive ability has reached a level that I’m not sure even he can attain — ask Jay Bilas, and he’ll tell you Tre is the best on-ball defender since humans began walking upright — he is an absolute menace that has the ability to completely take an opposing point guard out of the game.
And White has been taken out of games before. He was dreadful in the 21 point loss to Louisville in January. In December, Ashton Hagans turned Coby White into Cobie Smulders (NOBODY ASKED YOU PATRICE!) as Kentucky beat UNC in Chicago.
Who wins that matchup will be pivotal.
What will be more interesting, however, is going to be how Roy Williams decides to line up.
It’s no secret that Williams wants to play two bigs as often as possible. That’s his bread and butter, it’s a style that has won him three national championships — including one just two years ago. What he does have worked over the course of a three decade Hall of Fame career, why wouldn’t he try to find a way to make it work with the roster that he has now.
The problem with that is that his most talented lineup this season does not feature two bigs. It features Luke Maye at the five with Nassir Little and Cam Johnson playing alongside him, and I bring that up because that is the lineup that I think UNC is going to have to play if they want any chance of hanging with this Duke team in Cameron.
Think about it this way: If Luke Maye is playing the four alongside Sterling Manley or Brandon Huffman or whoever, then Maye is going to be guarding one of Zion Williams, Cam Reddish or R.J. Barrett, and that would not be a good thing for Mr. Maye.
But if Maye is at the five, it means that Marques Bolden is going to have to chase him around the perimeter while Cam Johnson, Kenny Williams and Nassir Little get matched up with Duke’s Big Three.
Little is an interesting case because there are multiple reasons he hasn’t been playing as much as you might expect. Part of it is that the skillset that makes him so attractive in the NBA — the versatility, the switchability, the fact that he can play the three or the four — just doesn’t work in a system that defines players as bigs or as wings. He’s not Justin Jackson and he’s not Kennedy Meeks, but he’s also not as well-rounded offensively as someone like Theo Pinson, so he’s like forcing a square peg in a round hole right now.
He also gets lost on the offensive end of the floor way too often for a kid that’s near the end of his freshman season, and he would be asked to slot into a position that he isn’t necessarily used to playing. But I don’t think that is what’s important here. What is going to matter is having someone that can get as close to matching Zion’s athleticism as possible, and that is Little. He may not have a clue, but his motor isn’t going to stop, and in a game like this, the athleticism and the effort are going to be two things that are really, really valuable.
PICKS: To me, the over is the clear bet. The way to beat Duke is to control tempo, to play a gapping defense that forces jumpers over the top and to keep them out of transition by fading the offensive glass. UNC wants to run more than Duke does, they pound the offensive glass harder than just about anyone — which means easy second chances when it works and easy runouts for Duke when it doesn’t — and they don’t have the horses to defend the way that a Louisville or a Virginia does.
But all signs here are also pointing me towards Duke (-9).