Duke-Carolina: Why UNC wins tonight

The Blue Devils have the homecourt advantage, but here are the factors that could lead the Tar Heels to victory

Eamon Queeney—North State Journal
Duke Blue Devils guard Grayson Allen (3) reacts as he collides on a loose ball with North Carolina Tar Heels forward Kennedy Meeks (3) in the first half of the college basketball game between the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Duke Blue Devils at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill

Duke and North Carolina clash in Cameron Indoor Stadium on Thursday for the first time this season. As the entire sports world stops to take notice, the teams will once again be battling at the top tier of college basketball. Carolina is ranked eighth in the nation. Duke is 18th. It’s the sixth Carolina-Duke game in a row where both teams are ranked. It’s the 27th straight where at least one of the teams is in the top 10. The last time Duke and Carolina played without one of them in the top 10, Matt Doherty was UNC coach and Duke freshman Harry Giles was four years old. The last time the two teams were outside the top 10 both times they played was 1981. Mike Krzyzewski was in his first year at Duke. Dean Smith was the best coach never to win a national title. The games are fierce, heated and, usually, competitive. The crowds, both in the arena and in front of screens around the nation, are loud and raucous. And UNC is going to win. Here’s why:Size really does matterJust as it did against a similarly perimeter-centric Notre Dame last Sunday, the trio of Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley figure to feast on a Blue Devil interior that has proven itself vulnerable against ACC competition. Consider that Duke has given up 40 or more points in the paint six times this season, with four of them coming since the start of conference play. Among the teams to do it against them is Pittsburgh last Saturday, a team that came into the game averaging just 25.9 points in the paint. On the flip side, UNC leads the nation in rebounding margin and offensive rebounds while averaging 14.3 more points in the paint than its opponents this season. In their win at Cameron last season, the Tar Heels piled up 20 second-chance points and scored 42 of its 76 points in the paint. UNC has the potential to put up equally large numbers this time, too, by constantly pounding the ball inside to Meeks, Hicks and Bradley, wearing down Duke’s one reliable post defender, Amile Jefferson, then taking advantage of the inexperience of lesser-used freshmen Harry Giles and Marques Bolden. “If we can keep our two bigs in there, I think we’ll have an advantage inside,” leading scorer Justin Jackson said. Been there, done that Cameron Indoor Stadium is one of the most intimidating, if not the most intimidating venues in college basketball and the atmosphere there — with all those screaming Crazies literally within an arm’s length of the court — has historically been the downfall of even the nation’s best teams. But if anyone knows how to block out the noise and keep their cool on Coach K Court, it’s the Tar Heels. They proved they could do it by going into Cameron and winning last year. On Senior Day, no less. And with a veteran lineup that includes two seniors and two juniors with a combined 10 previous trips to Duke, there won’t be anything there they haven’t already seen, heard or experienced. “As seniors and even the juniors, we’ve seen it before,” Meeks said. “We’ve been there before. We’ve won there before. We just have to go in there Thursday with the right mindset like we did last year.”Depth perception In addition to being loud, Cameron has a tendency to get awfully hot when it gets filled to its rafters, a factor that usually plays in the Blue Devils’ favor as the game wears on. But again, UNC figures to be less affected by the attrition factor than most teams because of the length of its bench and Williams’ willingness to use it. Assuming junior wing Theo Pinson will be available to play after missing the last three games with an ankle injury, and almost everyone interested in the game is assuming he’ll play, the Tar Heels can go 10 deep. That will be especially important on defense, where UNC’s bigs — Hicks in particular — will have to expend a lot of energy chasing around Duke’s multi-talented 6-foot-8 wing Jayson Tatum. In addition to the numbers against a Duke team that has significantly shortened its own bench in recent games, the extra reinforcements will also give the Tar Heels a hedge against foul trouble while providing an advantage in versatility, allowing them to go small if the flow of the game dictates such a move.The Theo factor Strictly by his numbers, the aforementioned Pinson’s presence in the lineup wouldn’t outwardly seem like a game-changer. He’s averaging 6.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists in the six games he’s played around a pair of unrelated injuries to his right foot. But it’s an undeniable fact that, whether it showed up on the