Remember before the season started, and we all envisioned how our Tar Heels would matchup with this year’s Duke’s team and how the Blue Devils didn’t stand a chance if UNC executed their gameplan with all of their weapons? That might have been a little ambitious, but Carolina does have the talent level to win in Durham on Wednesday regardless of how they compare to Duke on paper.
When I looked at the matchup before the season started, Ryan Kelly was a key component for Coach K and his lineup. His ability to spread the floor and serve as another legitimate three point threat really added a whole other dimension to the Blue Devils offense. Oddly, enough Duke is averaging more ppg without Kelly (76.3) than they are with him (73.3), however, one thing Duke hasn’t done playing with Kelly this season is lose. Duke dropped two road games to NC State and Miami within the first two weeks of Kelly’s absence which is a little coincidental. Clearly, it took Coach K some time to get his team to adjust without their star forward, he was exposed in the process and gave opposing teams, like the Tar Heels, a formula for how to defeat his highly ranked team.
Without Kelly, CJ Leslie from NC State and Kenny Kadji from Miami were matched up against players like Amile Jefferson and Josh Hairston who are much more inferior skill wise. The result: Leslie and Kadji scored 25 and 22 points respectively en route to their team’s victory. Guess who will be the benefactor of life without Kelly for North Carolina? James Michael McAdoo. JMM averages 14.9 ppg which sits between Kadji (13.5) and Leslie (15.7). McAdoo has just as much talent and skill as both the aforementioned players, who scored well above their averages against Duke with other players besides Kelly checking them on defense. This should be Roy Williams’ cue to have the ball run through McAdoo.
In UNC’s system, JMM does garnish a lot of touches and gets many opportunities to score as it is. However, with the potential of a big scoring night in his wake, Roy needs to amplify those numbers both early and often. The argument, of course, would be that even without Kelly, the Blue Devils have still won six of their last eight that included NC State at home with CJ Leslie. So why would JMM make such a difference when other capable forwards like Okaro White, Travis McKie, and CJ Leslie again (who logged 16 on 7-10 shooting in the loss) couldn’t capitalize? My answer is this: Outside of Leslie, none of the forwards that Kelly would have guarded in that stretch have lottery potential or the ability to take over a game like James Michael McAdoo does. Besides that, each of those six wins without Ryan Kelly came against teams (even NC State) that are ranked below fourth in the ACC Standings. Carolina may not resemble it at times, but they are better than Florida State and Wake Forest and have the personnel to expose Kelly’s absence more so than those teams do.
So if JMM can exploit his mismatches, then where do the Tar Heels stand from there? The next key matchup is going to be the Dexter Strickland vs Seth Curry pairing. It’s no secret that Curry can light it up on the scoreboard and has had consistent success scoring against the Tar Heels. In five career matchups against Carolina, Curry has averaged 16 ppg and has a 52.9% from three. Those are playmaking numbers and with the Tar Heels struggling to defend the three as it is, checking Curry on defense is extremely crucial. Enter Dexter Strickland. It’s no secret that Dexter’s role on this team is to play good defense and force turnovers. It’s also no secret that his defensive prowess has declined since returning from ACL surgery last season. However, Dex still remains the best option to check Curry for the majority of the game. The only question is, will we see the Dexter that was torched by Durand Scott and Rion Brown in the Miami game, or the Dexter that held Erick Green, the nation’s leading scorer (25.3 ppg), to below 20 points (16) for just the second time this season? I certainly hope it’s the latter.
To me, those are the most important matchups on the floor. If JMM can take full advantage of not having to go against Ryan Kelly and likewise, if Dexter can really limit Seth Curry’s production, then the Tar Heels have a good chance for the upset. We know Mason Plumlee will have a big night for Duke against the tri fecta of Hubert/Johnson/James and I think Reggie Bullock and Marcus Paige can draw even in terms of point production with Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon. What will put the Heels over the top will be if the Carolina bench can out score Duke’s. The Blue Devils don’t play nearly as many players as Carolina and Amile Jefferson, if he isn’t starting, is the only producer off the pine on a night to night basis. The Tar Heels will be able to work in PJ Hairston, Leslie McDonald and Brice Johnson who all have double figure potential. I know Roy’s bench will outscore Coach K’s, but Roy will need to really be aware of his rotations and substitution patterns because if he doesn’t play to his matchups, he could get lit up by several hot hands for Duke.
Beating Duke in Cameron Indoor on Wednesday will be no easy task. Duke is still #2 in the country and UNC is not. There is a reason for that. However, with this rivalry, nothing is certain and it is possible for the Tar Heels to win. The intensity will be high and the environment will be intimidating, especially for the freshmen, but if Carolina can take advantage of their mismatches and get good production off of the bench, we could potentially be looking at a big and much needed upset.