No. 15 North Carolina (18-7, 8-4) at No. 4 Duke (22-3, 9-3 ACC)
When: 9 p.m., Wednesday
Where: Cameron Indoor Stadium
Never miss a local story.
PPG: Duke 80.3; UNC 78.7
Allowed: Duke 64.6; UNC 67.4
How they match up
UNC’s Marcus Paige (13.9 ppg, 4.2 apg) vs. Duke’s Tyus Jones (11.3 ppg, 5.3 apg)
Much was expected of Paige entering this season, and the preseason ACC player of the year has had an up-and-down season.
At his best, he can be unstoppable, like he was at N.C. State (a season-high 23 points, shooting 6 of 9 from the field and 5 of 5 from 3-point range. Other times, he’s just off, and that’s not something UNC can afford from its best player (he scored eight points on 3-of-11 shooting in the loss at Pittsburgh).
Various lower-body injuries, including plantar fasciitis, have slowed him – that will help Jones stay in front of him defensively. All that said, Paige is the unquestioned heart and leader of UNC’s team.
Jones has played his best in the biggest games. In the six games against ranked opponents, he is shooting 56.5 percent overall, 47.4 percent from 3-point range and averaging 15.3 points – all three numbers are greater than his overall season averages.
Paige has the more proven track record but also a few nagging injuries, and Jones has yet to meet a moment too big for him.
J.P. Tokoto (8.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg) vs. Quinn Cook (14.8 ppg, 3.3 rpg)
Tokoto, at 6-foot-6, is bigger than Cook, 6-foot-2, but the Duke senior has experience guarding bigger players (most recently, the suddenly unstoppable Michael Gbinije at Syracuse, who is 6-7).
Cook has been the most pleasant surprise for Duke, rediscovering his shot after and off-year last season and providing the on-court leadership that was sorely lacking on last year’s squad. Tokoto, meanwhile, is in a funk that has left him coming off the bench for the past two games and he can disappear at times.
Justin Jackson (10.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg) vs. Justise Winslow (11.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
Jackson is another Tar Heel who hasn’t quite lived up to preseason expectations. On the eve of the season, coaches and teammates mentioned Jackson like he could be a true impact freshman and a second outside shooter. He has had his moments, but they’ve been the exception (and he has made just 23.8 percent of his 3-point attempts).
It’s not easy for freshman to come in and play major roles on high-level teams every night – just ask Winslow. He went through his own lull in January (scoring 12 points in four games), but since the game at Virginia, he has rediscovered his aggressiveness. Winslow’s strength will give Jackson problems on the defensive end. The challenge for Winslow is to drive to the basket more than he settles for jump shots.
Brice Johnson (13.4 ppg, 8.7 rpg) vs. Amile Jefferson (7.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg)
When teams go all-in with a double team on Okafor, Jefferson is normally the player left open. Okafor has done a nice job of finding him, so Jefferson can be sneaky productive for Duke at times.
Johnson, at his best, can be a go-to player down low like against Louisville in Chapel Hill, when he scored 11 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, or against Syracuse, when he posted 17 and 11. Johnson has been too inconsistent, and Roy Williams frequently mentions how the Tar Heels need more out of him.
Kennedy Meeks (12.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg) vs. Jahlil Okafor (18.2 ppg, 9.3 rpg)
Okafor, one of the front-runners for national player of the year, will be favored in any matchup. Meeks is battling his own consistency issues and has come off of the bench the past two games. Meeks can match Okafor size-wise, though.
The Blue Devils’ bench is quite small. Matt Jones will play crucial minutes, allowing Duke to go small at times. Marshall Plumlee will spell Okafor at times, and Grayson Allen will give someone on the perimeter a rest. UNC will count on Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt and Joel Berry for quality minutes and has more of a plan B base should foul trouble arise with Joel James and Jackson Simmons.