Games against Gonzaga provide measuring stick for Duke, UNC

Both the Tar Heels and Blue Devils faced the Bulldogs in nonconference play this season

UNC senior Luke Maye drives past Gonzaga defenders during the Tar Heels’ 103-90 win Saturday in Chapel Hill. (Gerry Broome | AP Photo)

Results against a common opponent is a popular way of comparing rival teams, even if it isn’t always the most accurate way of doing so.

Take Duke and North Carolina, for example.

On Nov. 21 in Maui, the young Blue Devils got knocked from the top of the college basketball polls with an 89-87 loss to Gonzaga in a game they trailed by as many 16 points in the second half. Saturday in Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels dominated those very same Zags to the tune of 103-90.

Does that mean UNC is better than Duke?

Not necessarily, considering the time, the place and the circumstances surrounding the two games.

For the Blue Devils, the matchup with Gonzaga represented the first close game for its four prized freshmen whose ears were ringing with premature talk of undefeated seasons, national championships and recognition as the best college team ever.

Playing their third game in as many days against a talented, veteran opponent, RJ Barrett, Zion Williamson, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones were clearly knocked back before finally regaining their composure and nearly winning at the end.

It was, in the estimation of coach Mike Krzyzewski, a valuable learning experience.

“I thought we looked young,” Krzyzewski said after the loss. “I think emotionally they were more ready to play than we were, and that’s something you learn.”

While Duke used its Gonzaga game as an educational tool to prepare for the more meaningful tests that lie ahead, UNC had a more immediate agenda.

For the Tar Heels, who had stumbled in their first two matchups with top teams and were struggling to find an identity, Saturday’s battle represented an opportunity to re-establish themselves as a serious ACC and national championship contender.

Motivated by a raucous sellout crowd at the Smith Center and an urgency not normally associated with mid-December nonconference games, UNC rode standout performances from veteran stars Cam Johnson and Luke May to a badly needed victory.

If not for the national poll voters, but itself.

“I think we needed this to show ourselves how good we can be,” senior guard Kenny Williams said afterward. “We see everyone talking about how Carolina’s defense is horrible and all that, so we just needed to show ourselves how good we can be and the potential we can play with going deeper into the season.”

The Tar Heels (8-2) have three more nonconference games remaining — including a neutral court showdown with Kentucky in Chicago on Saturday — before opening ACC play on Jan. 5 at Pittsburgh.

As significant as their win against Gonzaga was, their performance was anything but polished.

UNC turned the ball over 23 times against the fourth-ranked Zags, leading to 29 points. There were also several blatant defensive breakdowns, especially when it tried to trap Gonzaga’s ballhandlers on the perimeter.

The Tar Heels overcame those problems by outscoring their opponent by an incredible 27-0 margin on second-chance points and shooting better than 50 percent (13 of 25) from 3-point range.

“Take away the turnovers and the miscommunication on the defensive end, there were several times I thought we did some good things,” coach Roy Williams said. “If we don’t play really, really well, we can’t win this game.”

Duke has played “really, really” well at times this season, too.

But the Blue Devils (9-1) have also had their share of freshman moments, especially when they play overmatched opponents they can beat simply because they have more talent.

One of those games was on Dec. 5 against Hartford, when they let the Hawks of the America East Conference hang around for 32 minutes — they only led by eight with 12 minutes to go — before finally stepping on the accelerator and winning 84-54.

They followed a similar pattern, though not as dramatically, in the following game, a 91-58 win against Yale.

“I felt like we started off playing hard but not sharp,” Williamson said. “In the second half in both games we picked it up. I feel like that’s something we need to improve on.”

While Duke still admittedly has things on which it needs to get better, the improvement from the Gonzaga game more than a month ago is already noticeable to Barrett’s eyes.

“I think that after Hawaii, we really have grown up as a team, as a unit, especially on defense,” said the freshman star, whose potential game-tying shot against the Zags was blocked at the buzzer. “Then it started to translate offensively, so we’re growing more and more every game.”