No. 8 UNC at No. 18 Duke
When: 8 p.m., Thursday.
Site: Cameron Indoor Stadium, Durham.
TV: ESPN (Dan Shulman, Jay Bilas). Internet live-stream: WatchESPN app. Radio: 106.1-WTKK; SiriusXM channel 84
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Grayson Allen (15.8 ppg, 4 apg) vs. Joel Berry (14.9 ppg, 4 apg)
Allen and Berry played on the same AAU summer team during their high school years, and their parents are still close and keep in touch. Now they’re reunited, for the fifth time, in this rivalry. Allen, who entered the season, isn’t a traditional point guard but he has emerged, almost by default, as the guard most responsible for running Duke’s offense. Berry, meanwhile, has become one of the nation’s best point guards, and as he goes so often do the Tar Heels. Both of these players are driven by emotion, though Berry has done a better job – to put it mildly – of controlling himself.
Luke Kennard (19.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg) vs. Kenny Williams (6.5 ppg, 3.4 rpg)
Kennard has been the most consistent light for Duke, and is in the midst of a season littered with big performances, big runs and even bigger shots. He’s often stepped up in big situations and is among the favorites in the wide open race for ACC Player of the Year honors. Williams, meanwhile, started the season strongly, faded, but then seemed to regain some confidence in UNC’s victory against Notre Dame on Sunday. He made three 3-pointers in that win – the first time since early December he’d made that many. Williams’ most important contributions on Thursday night could well come on defense.
Matt Jones (8.3 ppg, 3 rpg) vs. Justin Jackson (18.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg)
Jones is an unquestioned leader for the Blue Devils, a guy who’s been around the block a time – or four, now that he’s a senior – and one who is well-acquainted with the intensity of these Duke-UNC games. That’s an important intangible for anyone playing in this rivalry, and Jones has a proven knack for emerging in key moments, too, like he did during the memorable comeback victory against Miami earlier this season. Jackson, though, is having a first-team All-ACC kind of year, and he has become the player many envisioned he would be when he arrived at UNC three years ago. He’s an adept perimeter shooter who can also attack defenses off the dribble, and his floater can be unstoppable at times.
Jayson Tatum (15.8 ppg, 6.9 rpg) vs. Isaiah Hicks (12.8 ppg, 5.6 rpg)
This is where the matchups start getting interesting, and where the chess match between Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski comes into play. Tatum is hardly a power forward in the traditional sense, but he plays the “four” for Duke, which, like many teams nowadays, don’t really use a lineup of traditional positions, anyway. Hicks, though, is a true power forward. Both players will test each other, especially when they’re on offense. Hicks has to avoid foul trouble against Tatum, who is perimeter-oriented, and quick. Offensively, Hicks needs to exploit his ability to get to the rim and finish strong. Whomever does better defensively is likely to win this matchup – and Hicks has been very good of late.
Amile Jefferson (12 ppg, 9.2 rpg) vs. Kennedy Meeks (12.6 ppg, 9.4 rpg)
Jefferson and Meeks are two of the best rebounders in the ACC, and both are in the midst of similarly strong senior seasons. Jefferson has been Duke’s only consistent post presence while Meeks, too, has found consistency after his uneven – and injury-plagued – sophomore and junior seasons. They have similar numbers but they play different roles. Meeks, due to UNC’s inside-out philosophy, is a more prominent part of the offense. Duke is more of a spread-it-out and drive kind of team, and so Jefferson, who still isn’t 100 percent after a recent foot injury, isn’t necessarily targeted in the offense the way UNC emphasizes Meeks. Offensive rebounding will be a major priority for both, and Meeks has to avoid fouls.
Duke has shortened its bench in recent games, and during its victory against Pittsburgh on Saturday the Blue Devils essentially used a six-man rotation – with Matt Jones coming off the bench. Frank Jackson, the freshman guard, started that game and played 27 minutes, the most he had since November. Whether that’s a permanent change or not, we’ll see, but one thing is clear enough: the Tar Heels are the deeper team, even without Theo Pinson, who may or may not play on Thursday. If Pinson plays, UNC has back its “energy guy,” a versatile player who does so many things well. Even without him, though, coach Roy Williams can go 10 deep if he’d like. Tony Bradley is another big man that presents match-up problems for Duke, and Nate Britt is a savvy senior guard who’s been in these games now for four years. Luke Maye, too, has proven an ability to make important shots.
Andrew Carter and Jessika Morgan