There are so many contradictions surrounding last night’s Duke/UNC game that it’s extremely difficult to pick one angle and run with it. Roy Williams deserves blame, but not as much blame as he’s getting. The Tar Heels stopped going to Brice Johnson, although did they really ever mean to go to him that much in the first place? And did Duke’s guards and the way Plumlee defended the post after his fourth foul have a lot to do with that? The game FELT like it should have never been close, and yet it was close for the entire game.
So in honor of the final handful of possessions, we’re going to stop calling plays and we’re just going to take what the defense gives us with some rambling thoughts scribbled below.
Score by position group:
Post players … UNC won 35 to 11.
Guards … Duke won 43 to 19.
Wings … Duke won 20-19.
I think it’s fair to ask if we were all looking at the wrong mismatch heading into this game. All of the talk surrounded UNC’s advantage on the inside, and when that materialized as we all expected, it was hard to explain why Duke was still within striking distance. Allen, Thornton and Kennard destroyed Paige, Britt, and Berry just as much as Johnson and Meeks did to Plumlee and Jeter.
The difference? Ingram topping Jackson, Hicks and Pinson by a small margin, with 10 of Ingram’s points coming over the final 11:20 when Duke trailed by 7 points. When Ingram was off, Duke’s deficit bounced around from 8 points to 4 points and back again. We kept asking “how is this game even close?” when the better question was “why isn’t this game closer?”. Ingram started hitting shots and the game swung in Duke’s favor.
Duke’s backcourt was always going to wash out UNC’s advantage in the front court, and we all just missed it. Before, and during, and now, after the game.
This game wasn’t a theft. 2012, on the other hand, absolutely was. In that contest, UNC led by 10 with 2:38 left before committing a comedy of errors that included Tyler Zeller accidentally scoring on his own basket, and an 8-15 2nd half clip from the free throw line. It’s easy to lump the two games together as unexpected, 1-point Duke wins in the Dean Dome, but in reality, they’re night and day.
Roy Williams gets a bad rep because of our obsession with UNC’s “focus” and “intensity”. Part of that is on Roy for throwing those juicy nuggets to the media to fall on the sword, in a way, by taking negative attention away from his players. To smart observers, this is, of course, bunk. Where Roy does deserve some criticism when looking at the final possession is, to no one’s surprise, when you compare it to Duke’s final possession over the weekend against Virginia. Both coaches tend to err on the side of allowing players to decide the game against an unsettled defense.
Krzyzewski took the risk of calling timeout with 6 seconds remaining against the smartest defense in college basketball to make sure that Grayson Allen had the ball in his hands. Williams let his team play, and Duke defended perfectly.
Kennard found Paige in the corner and denied him ball, forcing Johnson to flash to the top of the key to help out. Plumlee was able to sag off denying a potential backdoor pass, Allen completely shut off Jackson coming off of a screen, and Ingram fronted Meeks giving no opportunity for a play there. The ball went to back to Berry, who had a one-on-one with Thornton with 8.4 seconds to play. A perfect opportunity for a timeout, especially with the four off-ball players standing completely motionless.
Instead, Berry takes Thornton off of the dribble and gets his shot blocked, and Ingram’s length allows him to tap the ball out to a wide open Grayson Allen. Marcus Paige never touched the basketball.
While a timeout would have likely put the ball in Paige’s hands, he did himself no favors on the possession by being completely stagnant. For a player who has made his share of clutch plays at North Carolina, Paige wanted no part of that final possession. While we all have a blind spot when it comes to Paige, as evidenced by his back-to-back pre-season ACC Player of the Year Awards, it’s telling that Duke had Kennard on Paige and Allen on Jackson. Not only did Paige shy away from the final possession, it was almost like Duke expected him to.
Duke is now a game out of 1st place in the ACC after starting conference play with a 4-4 record. While the turnaround has been incredibly unexpected and worthy of tremendous praise, Coach K’s late entry into the ACC Coach of the Year race doesn’t mean he’s the favorite to take home the award. If Miami wins the league, Larrañaga is the obvious choice. If they don’t, it’s important to remember that Notre Dame is quietly right there within striking distance of the league’s top spot as well. Brey has to be considered 1B right now in the standings, but the work that’s been done on the Duke sideline has certainly entered Krzyzewski into the discussion.
As we discussed last week, Brice Johnson’s performance last night was bad news for Cat Barber. The ACC Player of the Year race is now effectively down to Malcolm Brogdon and Brice Johnson, with Grayson Allen having an outside shot at grabbing the award. Fair or not. (spoiler alert – it’s not fair. Cat is VERY deserving).
So what now for UNC? Can they overcome that kind of loss? Were they ever as dominant as we thought they were? I certainly don’t see signs of any of those questions being answered favorably for UNC. Do you?
What about Duke? If Matt Jones is out, and Amile Jefferson can’t come back, we’re probably looking back at last night’s game as the highlight of Duke’s 2015-16 season. The good news for the Blue Devil faithful is that Duke is officially playing with house money at this point. Even without an ACC championship or a Final Four, this may be one of the best rebuilding years in program history.