As long as Joel Berry doesn’t take any charges in practice on Friday, and as long as Isaiah Hicks doesn’t collide awkwardly with him, North Carolina will face Duke on Saturday with Hicks in the lineup.
The power forward’s unexpected absence from the first meeting in Durham ended up playing an unexpectedly large role in the Tar Heels’ defeat that night, even if there was nothing Hicks could have done about North Carolina’s inability to make free throws. Hicks would have almost certainly helped sway the rebounding numbers in the Tar Heels’ direction, while his athleticism and length probably gives him the best chance of guarding Duke’s Jayson Tatum.
There’s a lot on the line Saturday night: For North Carolina, an outright ACC regular-season title and its first win over Duke at the Smith Center since 2014; for Duke, potentially a double-bye in the ACC tournament and an increased chance of avoiding a trip out west in the NCAA tournament.
Some of that may hinge on the fascinating matchup at the would-be power-forward spot that didn’t happen in the first meeting, as Hicks and Tatum will resume an ongoing battle of coaching philosophies, with Roy Williams’ dual bigs against Mike Krzyzewski’s preference for a smaller lineup.
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While there are times Williams goes small (most famously with the Reggie Bullock-P.J. Hairston team, but occasionally with this group and Theo Pinson), he’s most comfortable with two traditional post players on the court. And while Krzyzewski will go big from time-to-time, and was expected to this season before Harry Giles and Marques Bolden got hurt, he often defaults to what is essentially a four-guard lineup – albeit one where the fourth guard is typically an NBA swingman like Tatum or Brandon Ingram.
Both have had tremendous success doing it their way, so there’s clearly not a right way or a wrong way, but when their teams play, once you sort through the pomp and circumstance, and sweep away the history and the hype, the collision of those philosophies often becomes a compelling subtext.
Some years, when Duke has longer or thicker players at the so-called 4, like Jabari Parker or Ingram, the difference isn’t as pronounced. In others, when that role is filled by a predominantly perimeter-oriented player, like Justise Winslow or Tatum, it is.
“Having to guard the other team’s 4,” Tatum, 6-8, 205, said, “it’s not always easy, but it’s a team game. … Most of the time I’m undersized. Hopefully, on the offensive end, the mismatch is there for me to not just score, but create.”
Tatum is a driver and slasher who is just now, late in what figures to be his one year of college basketball, getting some post touches in the flow of Duke’s offense. Hicks, 6-9, 242, while a prototypical North Carolina big man in many ways, has both the quickness to keep up with Tatum and an uncanny propensity for fouling that he’ll have to overcome to do that, while having the kind of size and post moves to potentially take advantage of Tatum at the other end.
“If we get it inside and Isaiah makes strong moves and continues to do that all game, either (Tatum) will be in foul trouble or Isaiah will have a ton of points, because (Tatum) won’t want to foul him,” North Carolina’s Justin Jackson said. “But a lot of that is just Isaiah coming out to play and us feeding him or whoever Tatum is guarding, because obviously he’s more of a wing player. That’s who he is. Playing down there, we have to figure out how to take advantage of some of those things.”
When Hicks was injured in the final practice before Duke’s 86-78 win on Feb. 9, all of that went out the window. While the game turned with 4 ½ minutes to play when Berry missed the front end of a one-and-one and Tatum hit a big 3-pointer at the other end, North Carolina’s inability to convert its size advantage into rebounds was a major factor all night. Duke was able to shut down Kennedy Meeks and once Tatum figured out North Carolina couldn’t stop him, he exploded for all 19 of his points in the second half – two coming on a thunderous dunk on Meeks, the high point of what turned out to be a turning-point performance for Tatum.
Maybe it would have been different for the Tar Heels if Hicks had played. They’ll find out now, and the second meeting could hinge on the first instance of this compelling matchup.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock