Mike Krzyzewski gave a glowing assessment when asked about North Carolina on Monday.
“They’re more experienced and more talented and deeper than we are,” Krzyzewski said. “To me, they’re the best team. It will take a heck of an effort, but our guys are giving a heck of an effort.”
Matt Jones pointed to the Feb. 6, 88-80 win against N.C. State as the moment where Duke’s current wave of momentum began. The Blue Devils had a 13-point lead midway through the second half but saw the Wolfpack claw back to within one possession, at 79-76, with 3:40 remaining. The Blue Devils came away with points on five of their final seven possessions, while the Wolfpack scored on just three of its final seven.
“I feel like the games up to that point had been learning experiences, and I feel like against N.C. State we were able to put a couple of things together during that game,” Jones said.
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Since then, No. 20 Duke (19-6, 8-4 ACC) has beaten then-No. 13 Louisville and then-No. 7 Virginia, the latter of which came in dramatic fashion with Grayson Allen hitting a buzzer-beating, 8-foot bank shot for the 63-62 win.
“We’ve been in a couple of close games where we’ve been down by one with five minutes to go,” Jones said. “And we were down by one with six seconds to go against Virginia, and to be able to pull those games out with the toughness and togetherness that’s been ... it shows a lot of poise on our part, and it shows a lot of growth.”
The No. 5 Tar Heels (21-4, 10-2 ACC) do present Duke’s toughest challenge to date. The Tar Heels have size, skill and strength inside with Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks, with Joel James and Isaiah Hicks ready to contribute off of the bench. UNC ranks 14th nationally, and first in the ACC, with an offensive rebounding percentage of 37.9, meaning the Tar Heels collect that percentage of available offensive rebounds.
“Us guards have to collapse down, find a body to block out, and get those loose ball rebounds that bounce around,” Grayson Allen said.
Duke did that against Virginia in the second half, and that was one part of an overall strong defensive effort. The game plan called for no 3s from Cavaliers guards Malcolm Brogdon or London Perrantes, and Matt Jones and Derryck Thornton locked down their men. Brogdon shot 1-for-6 from deep, and Perrantes, who leads the ACC in 3-point percentage at 53.4, didn’t even attempt one in his 39 minutes on the floor.
“We’ve figured out what this team is,” Krzyzewski said. “That transformation after Amile (Jefferson) got hurt (on Dec. 12) has to take place in real time. It’s not in October and November when you’re not playing anybody.”
Thanks to a string of recent strong performances, the Blue Devils’ confidence is at a season high. It sets them up well for one of the few teams that might have the edge against them on paper.