No. 20 Duke at No. 5 North Carolina
When: 9 p.m.
Where: Smith Center, Chapel Hill
TV/Radio: ESPN, WRAL, 106.1-WTKK, 99.3-WDNC
Joel Berry (12.2 ppg, 4.2 apg) vs. Derryck Thornton (8.1 ppg, 2.7 apg)
Thornton, if you recall, should technically still be in high school. He reclassified and arrived at Duke a year earlier than anticipated. He has progressed nicely during his freshman season, especially defensively. During Duke’s victory against Virginia on Saturday, Thornton didn’t allow the Cavaliers’ London Perrantes, who leads the ACC in 3-point field goal percentage, to attempt a 3. At UNC, meanwhile, this has been a breakout season for Berry. He might be the Tar Heels’ grittiest player, and he has had the moxie to make several important clutch second-half shots this season.
Marcus Paige (13 ppg, 3.7 apg) vs. Grayson Allen (20.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg)
Allen is in the ACC Player of the Year discussion and Paige was expected to be entering this season. They’re similar players with similar skill sets. However, Allen, who is averaging 20.6 points and 4.7 rebounds per game, is clearly having the better and more productive season. His latest highlight was the game-winner at the buzzer against Virginia. Paige hasn’t had the senior season that was expected – he recently endured a long and uncharacteristic slump – but in the past few games he has more resembled his usual self. Allen and Paige are the most likely candidates to have the ball in their hands if the game is close in the final seconds.
Justin Jackson (12.1 ppg, 3.8 apg) vs. Matt Jones (11.7 ppg, 2.7 rpg)
Jackson hasn’t been as consistent as he would have liked so far this season, and that’s the good news for Duke. The bad? Jackson during the past two games has played as well as he has during any stretch this season. He has been more aggressive and rediscovered his outside shooting touch. Jones is overshadowed by Grayson Allen and Brandon Ingram, but Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski recently described Jones as the Blue Devils’ under-the-radar hero. Jones does a little bit of everything for Duke, and does a lot of things well.
Brice Johnson (16.4 ppg, 10 rpg) vs. Brandon Ingram (17.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg)
This is probably the game’s most interesting matchup, and it could be the one that has the greatest effect on the outcome. How does Johnson, who prefers guarding post players, fare while defending the athletic, rangy Ingram? And on the other end how does Ingram fare against one of the most skilled post players in the country in Johnson? Johnson is an ACC Player of the Year candidate, and Ingram is a first-team All-ACC candidate who appears to be the latest in a line of Duke’s one-and-dones. Ingram has the more coveted pro prospect while Johnson is a senior who has come a long ways in his four years.
Kennedy Meeks (10.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg) vs. Marshall Plumlee (8.1 ppg, 8.4 rpg)
Asked on Tuesday if he’d miss seeing a Plumlee on the court for Duke, UNC coach Roy Williams responded with a simple “no.” Williams then acknowledged his respect for the Plumlee brothers, who have posed many challenges for UNC over the years. This game will be no different. Plumlee, who leads the Blue Devils with 8.4 rebounds per game, is Duke’s only true traditional post player. Energy and effort are givens out of him. Meeks has been something of an enigma for UNC. He has scored in double figures once in the past seven games, and he’s going through the kind of lull he did toward the end of last season.
This is the one aspect of the game in which one team has a clear advantage over the other. UNC can go 10 deep, if need be, and it has received valuable contributions at times from reserves Isaiah Hicks, Theo Pinson and Nate Britt. Joel James has become a dependable role player in the post and freshmen Luke Maye and Kenny Williams can provide some spot minutes here and there, too. Duke’s bench, meanwhile, mainly consists of freshman guard Luke Kennard. He has erupted for some big scoring performances this season but consistency has been elusive.
This game seems a lot more high-stakes than it did about a week ago. Duke, with a victory, would be back in the thick of the race in the ACC. The Blue Devils with a victory would be one game behind UNC and Miami in the loss column of the conference standings, and a Duke win would go a long way toward erasing the memory of the Blue Devils’ shaky start in conference play. UNC is seeking firm footing, too. The Tar Heels played one of their best all-around games of the season on Sunday against Pitt and needs to build on that momentum. Time is running out for UNC to become the type of complete, dominant team it believed it could be. What better time to put it all together than during one of its most important games of the season?