Just as they wear different shades of blue, so the men at Duke and North Carolina are known for divergent playing styles on the basketball court. Until this year, when they figure to swap looks in a striking role reversal.
Getting the ball into the low post has been a career-long offensive focus for Roy Williams. “I dramatically believe in playing inside-out first,” the Dean Smith protege told me this past summer. “The biggest reason is, at the end of the game some of the other team’s best players may be sitting on the bench because they fouled out.” Not to mention, the closer you get to the basket, the better your chances of scoring efficiently.
This season, though, the route to defending Williams’ third NCAA title might necessitate a pronounced strategic adjustment. Given that 6-8 Luke Maye is his only returnee with significant post experience, the Tar Heel coach may rely, as he did only twice previously, on a wealth of wings and guards to carry Carolina’s high-octane attack. “I do have confidence for us on the perimeter, I really do,” Williams says.
Meanwhile, even as North Carolina looks outward, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski anticipates building a powerful interior game. The three-time U.S. Olympic coach is known for embracing 3-pointers more ardently than most collegiate colleagues. Last year, led by Grayson Allen and Luke Kennard, Duke had at least five players attempt 100 or more 3-pointers and make at least 34.2 percent of their tries.
The Blue Devils paced the ACC in 3-point accuracy 10 times since 1992, Christian Laettner’s senior year, when they deployed an unconventional one-in, four-out alignment. Perimeter shooting has increasingly become a Duke trademark. Since 2000, the Devils have averaged better than 21 3-point tries per game. Last season was the seventh since winning the 2001 NCAA title in which Duke got at least 31 percent of its scoring from threes.
Now Krzyzewski foresees a different approach – using more zone defense and aiming to control the boards. That emphasis would mark a major shift, and not simply because Duke is known for man defense. Only four of Krzyzewski’s previous 37 Duke teams, and just one since 1989, emphasized board work enough to lead the ACC in rebound margin.
“We’re a much different team than last year in that we’re big. We’re very big and athletic,” Krzyzewski says. “That doesn’t mean we can’t shoot but we’re not the outside shooting force that we’ve been in some of these previous years. Hopefully we’ll be an outstanding rebounding team and defensive team and still play up and down the court.”
The interior bulwarks stand 6-10 or taller and weigh at least 234 pounds – sophomore Marques Bolden and freshmen Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. Sophomore Javin DeLaurier, a mobile 6-10, also has impressed Krzyzewski in preseason. To keep defenses from sagging inside, Duke figures to rely on the 3-point shooting of senior Grayson Allen, the only returning starter, and freshmen Gary Trent Jr. and playmaker Trevon Duval.
Bolstered by the nation’s premier recruiting class, the Blue Devils start the year atop the coaches’ poll and also will likely be No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason rankings for the fifth time this century, more than any other program during that period.
Like his Durham counterpart, UNC’s Williams isn’t too stubborn to adjust to the talent at hand. Heavy reliance on perimeter play is a major departure offensively: None of his teams have derived as much as 30 percent of their points on threes. Last year 3-pointers accounted for 25.1 percent of UNC’s scoring, fourth-best since Williams took over in 2003-04. Nearly two-thirds of that long-distance dialing came from Justin Jackson and Joel Berry II; no one else on the squad tried more than 80 threes.
This year’s top outside threats are Berry, who is expected to miss the next four weeks with broken hand; junior Kenny Williams, healthy again; Maye, the Heels’ most accurate 3-point shooter (.400) in 2017 on 40 attempts; and grad transfer Cameron Johnson, a .415 shooter on threes at Pitt. Theo Pinson, Brandon Robinson and Seventh Woods, all weak 3-point marksmen to date, bolster the defense and playmaking. Highly touted freshman Jalek Felton strengthens the mix.
Unfortunately, the team’s interior prowess is out of phase with the Williams norm. Last season North Carolina enjoyed a 12.3-rebound per game margin, tops in the nation and best in the ACC for the 10th time in Williams’ 14 years at Chapel Hill. The Heels’ inside-oriented approach may be a bit anachronistic in an era when the Golden State Warriors dominate the NBA by opening the post and bludgeoning opponents with threes, but it obviously still works for North Carolina.
Or, rather, has worked.
The 6-6 Pinson, deployed inside at times, is the best returning rebounder with a 4.6 average. Williams faced a similar post-championship dearth of seasoned frontcourt players in 2006, and wound up employing 6-6 David Noel at power forward. Happily, that year UNC introduced freshman Tyler Hansbrough, one of the best, most tenacious inside operators in school history. There’s no such luck this season. None of the freshman bigs – Garrison Brooks, Brandon Huffman, Sterling Manley and Walker Miller – arrive as obvious starters, let alone on the cusp of stardom.
“Not as bad as (when) I was sitting in the (NCAA) infractions hearing, I’m scared to death of those big guys,” Williams said at last week’s preseason press conference. “I don’t know which one, but somebody’s got to be a player. I’ll say this. It’s fun. I’ve told them this. The four big guys got three scholarships and one (is a) walk-on. You take the best characteristic out of each one of them and put them into one player – you still wouldn’t have a player.” Williams laughed heartily. “And you know what, they’re my players, so we’ve got to figure out how to get that done.”
If his customary approach isn’t effective, Williams has contemplated a radical departure from form. “Go back to the way we teach kids to play in summer camp: nobody in the post,” he said in June. “I may have to take it from camp to court.”