College Basketball: Duke at UNC, Keys to the Game

On3 imageby:Jamie Shaw02/03/24


The campuses of Duke University and the University of North Carolina are less than 15 miles apart. And the two college basketball programs have played one another 260 times. Duke has won the last two contests and leads the series 20-13 since the 2010 season. However, UNC leads the all-time series pretty decidedly 143-to-117.

While the close proximity of these schools makes this a rivalry, the fact that each program is considered a Blue Blood of college basketball adds to the unique nature of a matchup between these two programs. Saturday’s game is the 49th time the two teams have met as top ten teams. It is the 88th time they have met with both teams being ranked among the nation’s top 25. 

Saturday’s game is at UNC, and will tip-off at 6:30 PM EST on ESPN. Duke is 16-4 on the season and came into the week ranked No. 7 in the A.P, Poll. UNC is 17-4 on the year and came into the week No. 3 in the A.P. UNC has won 10 of their last 11, running off a ten-game win streak before losing to Georgia Tech on Tuesday. Duke has won 11 of their last 12 games, including their last three.

Let’s go through some of the keys to the game for both teams. 

Four Keys for Duke

1. Establish Self From the 3-Point Line

If not for nothing, during his two years manning the sidelines at Duke, Jon Scheyer has shown that he can adapt his play style toward his personnel. Last season, Duke played big with a lineup that consisted of 6-foot-9 Mark Mitchell, 7-foot-0 Kyle Filipowski, and 7-foot-1 Dereck Lively. They are considerably smaller this season, starting 6-foot-3 Jared McCain, 6-foot-5 Tyrese Proctor, and 6-foot-5 Caleb Foster alongside Filipowski and Mitchell. 

A big reason for Duke sitting at 16-4, ranked among the country’s top ten is their three-point shooting. As a team, the Blue Devils are shooting 38.7 percent from beyond the arc. They have six players, Filipowski, McCain, Foster, Roach, Proctor, and TJ Power shooting over 37.0 percent from three. In Duke’s 16 wins this season, that team number spikes to 40.2 percent on almost nine makes per game. And in the losses, the percentage drops to 32.6 percent.

In their 16 wins, they are averaging 16.6 assists on 28.7 field goals. Duke will want to keep the ball moving and find the open man to get easy looks in the half-court.

If they can make shots from beyond the arc, the Blue Devils should open up spacing inside the arc for cuts to the rim and one-on-one matchups. In their four losses this season, Duke is shooting 41.8 percent from the field. In the wins, they are almost at 50.0 percent as a team.

2. Move the Ball and Touch the Paint

I touched on this a little in No. 1, but the two go hand in hand. Keeping the ball moving to find the best look goes without saying, but when Duke is doing this their offense runs much more smoothly and efficiently.  

In the Blue Devil’s 16 wins this season, they are scoring 82.9 points and averaging 16.6 assists per game. And, in the four losses, these numbers drop to 73.3 points on 13.8 assists. In ACC play, Duke has spaced the floor, playing Kyle Filipowski from various levels in the half-court. Mark Mitchell has taken up real estate in the dunker spot or slashes to soft areas of the defense. The other three players on the floor are spaced out from three. In their starting unit, Duke has four players on the floor who can shoot, and five who can create an offensive advantage with the ball. With the spacing and ball movement, Duke has won 11 of their last 12.

These first two points suggest that when Duke is moving the ball, they are at their best on offense. 

3. Get Elliot Cadeau in Foul Trouble

It has been no secret that when Elliot Cadeau is on the floor for UNC, the offense runs fast and efficiently. That said, Cadeau has had trouble staying on the floor at times this season. In the Tar Heels four losses, the freshman point guard has been in foul trouble (at least four fouls) in three of them and fouled out of two of them. 

When Cadeau is on the court, the ball is advanced up the floor quickly and it stays hot throughout the possession. When Cadeau is out, the ball can get stuck at times

According to College Basketball Reference UNC’s 82.6 points and 62.7 field goals attempted per game, both sit in the top 50 nationally. Without Cadeau on the floor, those numbers drop. For Duke, it would be advantageous to see if they can get Cadeau on the sidelines for elongated periods.

4. Do Not Let the UNC Secondary Players Get Going

RJ Davis has had nothing short of an All-American-type season and is firmly in the conversations for ACC Player of the Year. Armando Bacot has had a storied career, and Harrison Ingram has broken out as one of the top connecting forwards in the country. These three have been consistent all season. 

While those three have been consistent, Duke will need to limit the contributions of the rest of the UNC roster. If players like Cormac Ryan, Jaelyn Withers, Jalen Washington, or Seth Trimble find confidence and make consistent plays, that could make for a bad recipe for the Blue Devils. 

Four Keys for UNC

1. Establish Armando Bacot

Armando Bacot has been nothing short of productive during his five seasons in Chapel Hill. Not only did he pass Tyler Hansbrough as UNC’s all-time leading rebounder, but he also broke the 60-year UNC record for double-doubles. 

This season has seen other players step up for the Tar Heels, so while Bacot has been equally effective, he has not needed to do it as often. However, in the big games, establishing Bacot has opened up a lot opportunities for the Tar Heels as a whole. 

In four UNC losses this season, Bacot has averaged 9.8 points and shot 44.1 percent from the field. In the 16 wins, Bacot is averaging 14.2 points on 55.3 percent from the field. 

Even with that, Bacot’s efficiency from the free-throw line has wide margins as well. In the wins, Bacot is shooting 82.8 percent from the line. In the losses, he is shooting 56.2 percent. 

Positive things have happened this season when UNC has been able to get Armando Bacot involved and producing on the offensive end. 

2. Keep Duke Off the Free-Throw Line

In UNC’s losses this season, the four teams have been able to get points from the free-throw line. In those four games, the Tar Heels are giving up 23.8 free throws per contest, and the opposing team is making 18.8 free throws. 

Duke is making 19.0 free throws in their 16 wins, just over UNC’s average for opponents in losses. On the flip side, in UNC’s 17 wins, they are holding opponents to 16.1 free throws attempted and 11.6 makes. 

Keep Duke off the free-throw line, and UNC’s chances of winning goes up.

3. Create Possessions

UNC has long been known for playing fast. The pitch-ahead pass and the secondary break are things the Tar Heels implemented years ago to help them be among the top offensive teams in the country, year in and year out. 

UNC is at its best this season when they are playing fast and creating possessions. The Tar Heels are averaging 62.7 field goals per game this season and their 82.6 points per contest rank among the top 25 teams in the country. While in their losses, they are not far off their season average putting up 78.3 points, UNC is 9-0 this season when scoring 85, or more points. 

4. Win the Rebounding Battle, Decidedly

Take a look in the locker room before any game for any team across any level of basketball, and you will see one of their keys to the game is to win the rebounding battle. However, for North Carolina, this may ring truer than most. 

UNC is one of the top ten rebounding teams in Division 1 college basketball, averaging 41.6 rebounds per game. Cleaning up the defensive boards has played a huge factor in their wins as well. In the Tar Heel’s 17 wins, they have outrebounded their opponents by almost ten rebounds per game, on average. 

During UNC’s four losses, they were outrebounded by opponents 36.0 to 33.8. UNC needs to establish its presence on the boards early.