It is pretty amazing how quickly things have changed in the Duke – UNC rivalry over the past three years. Everyone knows that UNC won the title in 2009 and Duke won the title in 2010, but it goes deeper than that. There was a point in the past three years where it seemed like one school wasn’t just doing slightly better than their rival, but that one team had such a upper hand that it almost didn’t even seem like a rivalry.
On November 13, 2009 Harrison Barnes picked UNC over Duke. UNC had just come off winning the 2009 title and was 2-0 at the start of the 2009-2010 season. There was optimism in Chapel Hill, because Duke didn’t seem to be Duke any more. They hadn’t made it to the Final Four since 2004 and seemed to be the type of team that lost out on the top recruits (ex. John Wall, Greg Monroe, Harrison Barnes) and lost in the tournament to athletic teams like like Villanova the year before. It was clear who was winning the rivalry. This was the peak for UNC.
On September 30th, 2010 Austin Rivers picked Duke over UNC and Florida. Duke had just come off winning the 2010 title and were the pre-season #1 ranked team for the 2010/2011 season. They replaced Jon Scheyer, Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas with future #1 pick Kyrie Irving and Seth Curry. There were some concerns about their size (could the Plumlees replace Zoubek’s productivity?), but most people were optimistic about lineup of future NBA players like Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler, Kyrie Irving and Mason Plumlee. They would start off the year beating good teams like Michigan State and Marquette and destroying a supposedly very good Kansas State team in a road environment (Kansas City) that had me texting my brother-in-law (a UNC grad) about being surprised if Duke didn’t win the title. UNC had come off a year, where they went 5-11 in the ACC, lost to Duke by 32 and didn’t even make the NCAA tournament.
It all came crashing down when Irving hurt his toe in the Butler game. The team was still very good (Nolan Smith in particular had an all-time year), but after Irving’s injury they were no longer going to be an all-time great. With Irving, Duke could play a bad game and still beat most good teams, but after he was injured they no longer had that luxury. They still finished a really good year by going 30-4 (13-3 in the ACC) and blowing out UNC in the ACC tournament title game. However, they tried to bring Irving back from his injury and the chemistry issues clearly hurt the team. When they ran into an Arizona team that played at a higher level in a half than I can ever remember, it was over. UNC turned the things around and finished the year in the Elite 8.
Both sides of the rivalry could call it a draw after last year. It would have remained a draw if either of the following happened; A) Irving returned to Duke or B) Barnes/Zeller/Henson went pro. The good news for UNC is that neither A or B happened and they started this year off as the favorite to win the title. The rivalry had switched from UNC to Duke and back to UNC.
That leads us to Wednesday night’s Duke at UNC game. Both teams have reasons to be optimistic, but most likely both fan groups have been disappointed with how the year has gone. UNC has all the talent in the world and can seemingly turn their A game on whenever they want. However, they don’t have a backup point guard, aren’t great at defense and generally seem like they lack a certain amount of passion/heart. It is almost like they have read too much about how great they are and are just bored with the regular season.
Duke has somewhat of the opposite problem. They normally do have the passion/heart, but unfortunately the talent isn’t there. Also, unlike UNC where everyone seems to have a role and a position, Duke is a team made up of shooting guards and Plumlees. Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry are great complimentary players, but both are somewhat repetitive. Austin Rivers can get to the basket at will, but has questionable decision making ability and a inconsistent at best *outside shot.
*He shoots 38.2% from three, but only 67% from the line. If you believe he is a good shooter than you look at the first number. If you think that he is a bad shooter than the second number sticks out. I believe more in the second than the first. He is a good driver, bad passer and bad shooter.
It is February 6th and Coach K is still messing around with his lineup. It is clear that he hasn’t found a combination that works, so he tries things like a starting lineup of Tyler Thornton, Austin Rivers, Andre Dawkins, Josh Hairston and Mason Plumlee. I don’t have the number of combinations, but there have been nine different Duke players that have started a game. Does he want to go offense with Dawkins and Curry or defense with Thornton and Hairston? Does he want to play both Plumlees or start Kelly? Does he think that he can go without a traditional point guard or should Quinn Cook be starting? It would be one thing if Coach K was messing with just the starting lineup as a motivation technique, but he is also struggling figuring out who plays at the end of the games. That screams to me that he has no idea what to do with this team.
Yesterday in the Miami game Duke had freshmen Quinn Cook as the primary ball-handler and decision maker at the end. In the beginning of the year that was Tyler Thornton. In the middle of the year it was sometimes Seth Curry. Duke can’t seem to figure out who they are or what they want to be. This is in contrast to previous Duke teams (specifically the 2009/2010 team where everyone had a well-defined role) or this year’s UNC ‘s team. Everyone know that Marshall is going to be handle the ball and lead the offense, Barnes will provide outside shooting and scoring, Zeller will be the go-to person on the block and Henson will be the defensive stopper. Roy Williams doesn’t have to worry about changing up the lineup, because the team knows what it is and everyone understands their role. That isn’t the case with Duke as you can see the confusion among players like Austin Rivers (scorer or passer?) and Mason Plumlee (main offensive threat or someone you go to when a 3 pointer isn’t available?).
The main concerns I had after watching the Duke-Miami game were this:
- Duke isn’t that good. They aren’t very athletic and are poorly constructed. Certain players would be good players on other teams, but as a team they are pretty terrible.
- Their best offensive lineup would be Austin Rivers with the ball on the wing, Dawkins and Curry as spot up shooters, Ryan Kelly as a pick and pop option and Mason Plumlee as the low post option. Unfortunately that lineup can easily be stopped because Rivers struggles with the right decision and Dawkins/Curry can’t create their own shots. This could be a decent offense if Rivers operated at the highest level, but there is little margin for error. Since Rivers can’t seem to make the right decision then the best offensive lineup might be Cook, Rivers, Dawkins/Curry, Kelly and Mason Plumlee.
- Their best defensive lineup would be Thornton, Rivers, some small forward that they don’t have on their team, Miles Plumlee and Mason Plumlee. Notice only two overlaps in Mason Plumlee and Austin Rivers. That makes it tough to put together a lineup and the reason Coach K has been trying so hard to find the right combinations.
- Regardless of their lineup Duke can’t rebound. Miami of Florida missed 39 shots yesterday, but got 18 offensive rebounds. When a shot was missed by Miami there was almost even odds (46%) that they would get their own rebound. It is hard to get defensive stops if you can’t get the defensive rebound.
- They didn’t recognize what certain players were good and bad at doing. The Hurricanes 300lb center Reggie Johnson could score on the low block and did so effectively (11-17 shooting for 27 points). However, what he couldn’t do was pass the ball (0 assists). Why didn’t Duke double team him every time? I know that Miami made a lot of incredible threes in the first half, but in the end you just have to trust that they are a bad shooting team and that the odds will catch up to them.
- Duke’s defense isn’t very good, so maybe the best strategy is the high risk, high reward style that they employed in the 2nd half. They aren’t stopping anyone playing basic man to man half court defense, so why not press, trap and basically take some chances. It worked for them in the 2nd half as they were at least able to force turnovers and get some easy baskets. They still couldn’t stop Johnson in the post, get rebounds or prevent Miami from getting shots they wanted, but at least they were applying pressure. I think that it is best to follow the strategy of this year’s Packers. The Packers would give up a lot of yards and even a decent amount of points, but their defense was designed to create turnovers and get the ball back to the offense. I think Duke’s best shot is to recognize that they are a bad defensive team and decide to just try and create turnovers and confusion. The worst thing that can happen is that the other team will score, which seems to be happening enough already.
- If Miami can dominate with offensive rebounds then how does Duke stand a shot at stopping Carolina’s front line? Besides stopping Marshall’s dribble penetration that is my main concern with Wednesday’s game.
- UNC should be favored by 8.5 points in Vegas. I think the game will end with a score something like 82-68.
As you can see I am not too optimistic about Duke’s chances on Wednesday or for the season. I still hold out hope that they will be able to figure things out. They need someone to step up their game considerably and somehow everyone needs to find out where they stand in Duke’s lineup. It is a poorly put together team that looks like a #3 seed that at best losses in the Sweet Sixteen. For Duke fans their only hope is that UNC continues to fall short of expectations, ends up with a #2 seed and losses in the Elite 8 to a team like Ohio State.