Tar Heels face tall task against bigger Blue Devils

Duke presents an especially difficult matchup for a Tar Heel team whose most effective combination this season has been a small lineup

Duke big men Marvin Bagley III (35) and Wendell Carter Jr. form one of the best inside combinations in college basketball (Rob Kinnan/USA TODAY Sports)

  CHAPEL HILL — In each of its last four games — against Virginia Tech, NC State, Clemson and Pittsburgh — North Carolina’s opponents have attempted 30 3-point shots. That’s undoubtedly the product of a 3-point defense than ranks 324th out of 351 Division I college basketball teams.

  As strange as it might sound, coach Roy Williams would love to see the Tar Heels’ next opponent, Duke, continue that trend.

  “Maybe I’ll figure out some way to wiggle my nose like Bewitched and get them to start shooting threes,” Williams said. “That would make me feel a heck of a lot better.”

  It’s not that the Blue Devils aren’t good at shooting from beyond the arc. They actually have the second-best 3-point percentage in the ACC at .389 (195 of 501). The idea is that the more treys Duke attempts, the less opportunities it will have to exploit its decided size advantage inside.

  Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s ninth-ranked team features one of the most formidable low post duos in the nation in 6-foot-11, 234-pound Marvin Bagley III, the likely top overall pick in this summer’s NBA draft, and his 6-10, 259-pound sidekick Wendell Carter Jr.

  Between them, the freshman big men average 36 points and 20 rebounds per game. They’re the key elements to an inside-out attack that’s more reminiscent of UNC’s favored style of play than the Blue Devils’ traditional perimeter-oriented philosophy.

 “Those two big guys are a load,” Williams said of Bagley and Carter.  

  They present an especially difficult matchup for a Tar Heel team whose most effective combination this season has been a small lineup consisting of three guards, a wing and 6-8 forward Luke Maye.

  UNC will have its hands full trying to defend the bigger Blue Devils.  But, as Krzyzewski is quick to point out, Duke also has to figure out a way to defend the Tar Heels.

  “I think they’ve adapted really well to fit their style to fit their kids and they play it very well,” the Blue Devils coach said. “They’re tough matchups because Maye can bring it down the court, he can be in the post and in the same exchange he can go out to the 3-point line. It’s a tough team to defend.”

  If you listen to UNC point guard Joel Berry, Duke’s size could actually work to its disadvantage.

  “We have speed and can get the ball out fast and get it downcourt,” Berry said. “We just have to do a great job of boxing out, keeping them off the boards and keeping them from getting those second chance points.”

  That’s asking a lot, since Duke leads the ACC in offensive rebounding at 14.5 per game. But if anyone can do it, even without a traditional big man on the floor, it’s a Tar Heels team that leads the conference in defensive rebounding at 29.7 per game.

  Those numbers are somewhat deceiving, though, since UNC’s performance on the boards has been wildly inconsistent.

  Because while there have been games in which the Tar Heels have outrebounded an opponent by as many as 35, as they did against Boston College on Jan. 9, there have also been games like their loss to Michigan State, in which they were a minus-16 on the boards.

   “We have to be aggressive and do everything we can to win the rebounding battle,” 6-6 guard Theo Pinson said. “We’ve got bigs, too. I’m able to rebound at a high level, so I’m mentally prepared to be a big-time rebounder on Thursday.”

  Pinson has been just that recently, recording double-digit rebounding performances in the last three full games he’s played. Maye, meanwhile, ranks second in the ACC in rebounding behind Duke’s Bagley at 10.8 per game.

  Taller reinforcements are available if necessary in the the person of UNC’s own pair of freshman bigs.

  Garrison Brooks and Sterling Manley have seen their minutes and confidence increase over the past week, even logging a few stretches in which they were both on the floor at the same time.

  But while Williams said that it’s “best thing for our team and the best thing for our program” to get the still-raw youngsters more involved, the Tar Heels’ key to victory in the first of two regular season matchups against their neighboring rival lies with a familiar — though traditionally unfamilar — game plan.

  “We’re going to play our game,” Maye said. “We’re obviously going to have to defend them inside a little better and box them out a little harder. But besides that, I think we’re still going to play our game and the way we like to play by stretching the floor.”