Joel Berry (12.3 ppg, 3.8 apg) vs. Derryck Thornton (7.8 ppg, 2.5 apg)
Berry struggled mightily in the Feb. 17 game against Duke (2-for-12, 8 points), but he has shot 48.7 percent from the field since then (19-for-39). Don’t discredit Thornton’s influence on Berry’s poor night in Chapel Hill. Thornton has gotten better for Duke as this season has gone along, and his greatest asset is his ability to defend. Berry isn’t the most athletic, fluid point guard out there, making it easier for Thornton to stay with him.
Never miss a local story.
Marcus Paige (12.1 ppg, 2.3 apg) vs. Grayson Allen (21.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg)
Paige has had a senior year to forget, as his scoring and shooting percentage are down for the second straight year. Against Duke last time, Paige tried too hard to put the game on his shoulder, taking ill-advised jump shots instead of working the ball inside to Brice Johnson. Paige has been playing more point guard of late and has a high basketball IQ, so don’t count on him, and the Tar Heels, making the same mistakes again.
Allen, meanwhile, is having an all-American caliber year and will be buoyed by the increased crowd support at home to counter all of the bile coming his way from the outside world for his trip of Florida State’s Xavier Rathan-Mayes.
Justin Jackson (12.3 ppg, 3.9 rpg) vs. Matt Jones (11.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg)
Since the two teams last met, Jackson turned in his strongest performance of the year as he scored 17 points on 7-for-12 shooting at N.C. State. He was aggressive about driving to the basket, a look UNC will need from him in Durham. Jones has consistently guarded the opponent’s best player this year, and his defense has been one of his two most valuable contributions to the team (his on-court leadership is the other).
Brice Johnson is pretty much guaranteed to have a big game, so long as the Tar Heels don’t neglect to use him. Duke likely can’t afford a big game from Jackson, too.
Brice Johnson (16.8 ppg, 10.4 rpg) vs. Brandon Ingram (16.9 ppg, 6.8 rpg)
It’s quite possible that Johnson won’t spend much time defending Ingram – last game, Jackson drew that assignment most often. And Ingram will have a tough time guarding Johnson. Through 28 minutes in Chapel Hill, Johnson was unstoppable, scoring 28 points. But then the Tar Heels inexplicably stopped giving him the ball, as he took just one shot from the field in the final 12 minutes. Duke will be hard-pressed to limit Johnson on the boards, too.
Ingram had a 20 and 10 night in Chapel Hill, and that was with a pretty ineffective first half offensively (2-for-10 from the field in the first 20 minutes). When Duke spread the floor, put the ball in his hands and let him go to work in the second, North Carolina couldn’t stop him. Expect more of that Saturday.
Kennedy Meeks (9.9 ppg, 5.9 rpg) vs. Marshall Plumlee (8.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg)
Some have suggested that Roy Williams should be playing Isaiah Hicks over Meeks, and there is evidence to back up that notion. Meeks was largely a non-factor in the last game, and, for the second year in a row, he has pulled a disappearing act for the Tar Heels down the stretch.
Plumlee, meanwhile, continues to carry the entire workload for Duke in the post, and he tied his season-high with 17 rebounds this past Tuesday against Wake Forest (with 13 points, too). He has been remarkably consistent for Duke. Most important for Plumlee on Saturday will be avoiding foul trouble.
Duke has Luke Kennard. The Tar Heels have Hicks, Nate Britt, Theo Pinson Joel James and even Luke Maye as capable replacement options.
This is an important game for both teams in terms of ACC tournament implications. A win gives North Carolina a share of the ACC regular season title – a first for this group of Tar Heels – and the No. 1 seed for the ACC Tournament. A win would give Duke a double-bye next week – a significant plus for the 6-man rotation – and a season sweep of the Tar Heels.
The pressure is on UNC to prove it can be the type of team capable of making a deep March run. Lose Saturday and it’s fair to wonder if the Tar Heels will ever put it all together.