Mike Krzyzewski and a good but not 'great' Duke team head to UNC

lkeeley@newsobserver.comFebruary 11, 2014 

  • No. 8 Duke at North Carolina

    When: 9 p.m.

    Where: Dean E. Smith Center, Chapel Hill

    TV/Radio: ESPN/106.1 or 102.9 FM

    How they match up:

    Point guard

    So. Marcus Paige (6-foot-1, 175 pounds) vs. So. Rasheed Sulaimon (6-foot-4, 190 pounds)

    Sulaimon has emerged as Duke’s best option for defending on the ball, but Paige has been UNC’s best player. He can play on or off the ball and is the Tar Heels’ only long-range shooting threat. He has tended to play better late in games.

    Edge: UNC

    Shooting guard

    R-Sr. Leslie McDonald (6-foot-5, 215 pounds) vs. Sr. Tyler Thornton (6-foot-2, 190 pounds)

    McDonald has struggled to hit shots this year, though he has played better in the past two weeks, forcing fewer shots. This has been a rotating spot in Duke’s lineup, with Sulaimon and Quinn Cook’s inconsistent play, but at least Thornton gives them a veteran presence. He is the closest Duke has to an on-court coach, and he has the best court vision, even if his athletic abilities keep him from maximizing all the opportunities he sees.

    Edge: Push

    Small forward

    So. J.P. Tokoto (6-foot-5, 200 pounds) vs. R-So. Rodney Hood (6-foot-8, 215 pounds)

    Hood has been Duke’s most complete player and has turned in strong defensive performances against guys like Pittsburgh’s Lamar Patterson. He’s a reliable scorer, too, shooting 52.6 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3-point range. Tokoto could have issues staying with the athletic slasher.

    Edge: Duke

    Power forward

    Jr. James Michael McAdoo (6-foot-9, 230 pounds) vs. Fr. Jabari Parker (6-foot-8, 235 pounds)

    McAdoo, like Parker, has been more aggressive lately, settling for fewer jump shots and instead driving to the basket and drawing fouls. He’s given the Tar Heels an emotional boost, too. Parker, though, is a more polished, versatile offensive player who can drive the floor or post under the basket. There is a reason he’s projected as a top-three pick.

    Edge: Duke

    Center

    Kennedy Meeks (6-foot-9, 290 pounds) vs. So. Amile Jefferson (6-foot-9, 210)

    Meeks has been starting of late, but Roy Williams strongly suggested that the leaner, more athletic Brice Johnson could start in his place. Either way, Jefferson has the athletic edge and has collected the fifth-most rebounds, on a per game average, in conference play. He hasn’t let bigger players push him under the basket .

    Edge: Duke

    Bench

    Duke takes this one easily, with Quinn Cook and Andre Dawkins. Marshall Plumlee should be available after straining a tendon in his knee. The Tar Heels will have whoever doesn’t start at the five and Nate Britt, who can play on or off the ball in the backcourt.

    Edge: Duke

    Coaching

    Krzyzewski will lead the Blue Devils into this matchup as a top 10 team for the 14th consecutive time. He’s also taken this Duke team, which had major defensive issues at the beginning of the ACC season, and turned it into a legitimate contender for the league title.

    Edge: Duke

— During a recent press conference, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski cut a question short after disagreeing with its premise.

“Rasheed Sulaimon is playing great basketball right now…”

“He’s playing well,” Krzyzewski interrupted. “He’s not playing great.”

Good (or well, depending on the grammatical context), but not great would be an apt description for No. 8 Duke (19-5, 8-3 ACC). That’s where the team stands immediately before the first annual matchup with rival North Carolina (16-7, 6-4).

Krzyzewski isn’t down on his team – he made sure to note that he felt his guys have done an “unbelievably good job” overall. Still, there is room for improvement.

“No one on our team is playing great,” Krzyzewski said. “Like, Jabari had a great game (Saturday at Boston College, with a career-high 29 points and 16 rebounds). “Great is...don’t use it too loosely.”

Despite the preseason No. 4 ranking and comparisons to Duke national championship squads, Krzyzewski said he didn’t try to look too far ahead with this team.

“Sometimes when we’re doing a TV game and the TV people will come in before the game and they ask a few questions. One of the questions that I always say, ‘don’t ask that question:’ Is your team where you want it to be right now?” Krzyzewski said. “I don’t know. No, we’d like to be undefeated. We’d like everyone healthy, and I’d like more hair and a little smaller nose, too.

“With our group this year, they don’t have an accomplishment background. Who is Rodney Hood going to be? What are the things that Jabari is going to have to go through, who will be able to help him on the court? All those things.”

Hood has been Duke’s most complete player, taking into account both offense and defense. Parker has been as good as advertised, as he leads the ACC in rebounding (8.5) and ranks second in points (19.2) per game. Sulaimon has emerged as a reliable point guard and perimeter scoring option and Amile Jefferson has been able to pull down rebounds (his 8.0 rebounds per game in ACC play ranks fifth in the conference).

In Krzyzewski’s eyes, the perimeter depth is the strength of this year’s team. All of the guards – Quinn Cook, Tyler Thornton, Matt Jones, Andre Dawkins and Sulaimon – have started. And Hood is an All-America candidate at small forward. That group, along with Parker, forms the most potent 3-point shooting offense – the Blue Devils rank first nationally with their .420 shooting percentage from long range.

As UNC coach Roy Williams pointed out, the Tar Heels don’t have a single player shooting that well from behind the arc, and five Duke players make a higher percentage of 3s than Marcus Paige, the Tar Heels’ best option from deep (36.7 percent).

Duke needs to shoot well, though, to offset other weaker areas.

“We can lose easier than last year’s team because, one, we don’t have a lot of depth in the frontcourt. We’re not this big and strong team,” Krzyzewski said. “There are more opportunities to lose with this team. When you’re coaching, you’d like to reduce the number of ways you can lose. And I’m not sure even as we get better that we’re going to be able to.”

Duke has the most efficient offense in the nation. That’s the task UNC faces Wednesday: Slow down the nation’s best 3-point shooting team, one that values every possession (14.2 turnover percentage, seventh-best nationally) and boosts two potential lottery picks who can play all over the floor.

“On Wednesday, you guys will be able to feel it in the air, it’s Duke-Carolina,” Cook said. “I just think it’s a cut above all rivalries.”

Keeley: 919-829-4556; Twitter: @laurakeeley

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