North Carolina claimed a share of the ACC regular-season title on Saturday night as the No. 3 Tar Heels notched a 79-70 win over No. 4 Duke. Sweeping the regular-season series over the rival Blue Devils, North Carolina continues to put itself in position to potentially earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
Freshman Coby White led a balanced North Carolina effort with 21 points while senior guard Kenny Williams made plays on both ends of the floor to finish with 18 points and six rebounds — while doing an admirable job of making life tough on Duke freshman scorer R.J. Barrett (26 points, 10-for-27 shooting).
And even though Duke fell on the road in Chapel Hill, there were still able to stay in a game during in which they basically played without Zion Williamson or Marques Bolden.
Here are three takeaways from this one.
North Carolina’s guard play dictates the ceiling of this team
It’s important to note that North Carolina won both games over Duke with Zion Williamson relegated to the bench. Duke fans and anti-North Carolina people will express this sentiment whenever they can. And there’s something to be said for that.
But even with the Blue Devils missing Williamson and Bolden (more on that below), North Carolina’s guards had a very solid game against Duke. With senior forward Luke Maye (seven points, 3-for-13 shooting, 16 rebounds) having an off-night shooting the ball, the Tar Heel offense had to rely mostly on White and Williams to make plays. Both players delivered results for the first 34 minutes of Saturday’s game.
White had some dazzling moments knifing through traffic and making tough shots, garnering praise from NBA Draft gurus in the process. The second half opened up in large part due to White’s ability to do what he wanted with the ball in his hands.
Williams had a sound 7-for-15 shooting night in which he was 4-for-7 from three-point range. On the defensive end, Williams also helped draw three first-half fouls on R.J. Barrett as he frustrated the freshmen into some bad offensive possessions.
It has to be comforting for North Carolina that they can beat a very good team like Duke even with Maye having an underwhelming shooting night. If North Carolina’s guards continue to play like this, and Maye plays up to his normal capabilities, then North Carolina is as dangerous as any team in the country.
What does Duke do if Marques Bolden is out?
The injury bug continues to bite Duke late in the regular season. Williamson has missed the past five games. Tre Jones briefly left the second half of the Wake Forest win with what was labeled a bruised right thigh. Cam Reddish appeared to be favoring his knee at times on Saturday.
But the potential loss of junior big man Marques Bolden is a major subplot to follow for the Blue Devils over the next few weeks. Bolden went down with a knee injury in the opening minutes of Saturday’s game as he was helped to the locker room by teammates after colliding with the basket stanchion. He didn’t return to the contest as Duke had to roll with a smaller lineup to face North Carolina. Postgame, Coach K told reporters that Bolden suffered an MCL sprain.
Without Bolden in the lineup, the Blue Devils were missing the team’s second-best rim protector besides Williamson. Although Bolden has had an up-and-down career at Duke, his size and athleticism on the defensive end is unmatched on this Blue Devil roster — particularly if Williamson isn’t on the floor to help as a freakish weakside shot blocker.
Javin DeLaurier did a solid job playing an energy role in finishing with eight points and 10 rebounds, but he can’t protect the rim, or defend bigs in the post one-on-one nearly as capably as Bolden can. If Bolden misses any sort of significant time, it puts even more pressure on a limited Duke rotation that can’t get consistent production from players outside of Barrett, Reddish and Williamson.
And since Reddish can be maddeningly inconsistent in his own way, it means players like Alex O’Connell (0 points, 0-for-4 shooting) can’t have nights where they provide next to nothing. With the way Jack White has also struggled to shoot late this season, Duke’s depth continues to take hits heading into the postseason. For their sake, the Blue Devils desperately need Bolden back as a stabilizing force at the rim whenever Williamson gets a rest.
Should we worry about North Carolina’s late-game offense?
Although North Carolina won on Saturday, a troubling late-game stretch of offense will be something to monitor going forward.
After developing a comfortable double-digit with a little under seven minutes left, the Tar Heels took the foot off the gas and struggled to score the rest of the game. Going nearly six minutes without scoring, and the final 6:47 of the game without a field goal, North Carolina allowed Duke to crawl back into the game to make it tight at the end.
Many offensive possessions ended in contested shots or turnovers as North Carolina’s half-court offense was stagnant much of the time. Not known to run many plays, Tar Heel head coach Roy Williams has already had to adjust his offensive tendencies during the Miami win earlier this season.
While it didn’t get that dire in this one, North Carolina’s offense clearly lost a lot of confidence down the stretch against an undermanned Duke team playing without a true rim protector. For as brilliant as North Carolina can look, they can also have some puzzling stretches of bad offense. That kind of sustained stretch of poor offense could haunt this team in the postseason.