Tar Heels ramp up ahead of first Duke meeting

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Last week’s late-game collapse against Virginia notwithstanding, North Carolina appears to have hit its stride just in time to visit archrival and top-ranked Duke on Wednesday. 

Roy Williams has regularly noted that things tend to look a lot better when the ball is going into the basket, and it’s hard to shoot much better than the Tar Heels did in Saturday’s road demolition of Wake Forest. In fact, at an effective shooting percentage of 75.4 percent, the win over the Demon Deacons marked the second-best shooting performance in the Roy Williams era, the best in conference play. 

But the biggest question in yet another top-10 matchup in this storied series is how well Carolina will be able to defend Duke’s lineup of future NBA stars. The key for Carolina will be keeping Duke’s super-athletic lineup from getting easy penetration, as this version of the Blue Devils scores more around the rim than the traditional Duke squad.

As for Carolina’s plan to defend wunderkind Zion Williamson? 

“It’s easy to guard somebody when they don’t have the ball,” Garrison Brooks said on Monday. “So that would be best.” When crunch time hits, expect to see Nassir Little on the floor in this one; the freshman forward has experience — including some success — defending Williamson. Little’s ability to match up athletically as an on-ball defender and rebounder on the defensive end will be crucial to Carolina’s success.

File this away as you prepare to watch what projects to be a warp-speed, exciting affair: Carolina’s wins and losses so far have strongly correlated with opponents’ success from 3-point range, and this Duke team isn’t an especially consistent 3-point shooting team, particularly by Duke standards. The Blue Devils’ team three-point percentage currently stands at 31.3 percent. By comparison, UNC shoots 38.6 percent from deep. 

Duke has, however, periodically exploded with hot shooting from deep (including 13 for 21 at Virginia). Don’t expect this game to stay close if the Blue Devils shoot anything like that in this one. 

Of note: after a brief four-game lapse in which the Tar Heels contested only 35.1 percent of opponents’ shots, Carolina’s defensive intensity has bounced back, with the Heels contesting 42.7 percent over the past four games.

Along with avoiding live-ball turnovers in a raucous Cameron Indoor Stadium environment, Carolina’s ability to contest early outside shots to prevent Duke (particularly Cam Reddish and R.J. Barrett) from finding their rhythm from deep will be the thing to watch in this one.


Carolina signed 10 consensus blue-chip (four- or five-star) players (out of 74 signees) in Larry Fedora’s last three recruiting classes. After Wednesday’s pledge of four-star slot receiver Josh Downs (Suwanee, Georgia) UNC’s 2020 recruiting class now already includes four blue chippers out of six commitments. The most blue-chip players Carolina has signed in a single class since 2010 is seven in 2011, a number that this class now looks poised to exceed with ease.


Thirty-two. That’s the number of Luke Maye turnovers over the past 11 games, over a quarter of the 121 turnovers he has committed in his 62 games over the past two seasons. Maye will definitely have to get back under control and play cleaner basketball as Carolina’s schedule difficulty ramps up down the stretch.

Jason Staples has covered college football since 2007. You can follow him on Twitter @DocStaples and check out more of his work at InsideCarolina.com.