North Carolina vs. Duke as Saturday’s nightcap at the Final Four brims with intrigue. It’s quite possibly a once-in-a-lifetime experience, a basketball game that offers historical significance, a spirited rivalry, bragging rights and a plethora of future NBA talent.
Mike Krzyzewski and Hubert Davis have experienced lots of different chapters in this rivalry — with plenty of overlap. This, however, is different: Duke and UNC in the NCAA Tournament, with a trip to the title game on the line.
One man is in his first season as a head coach. The other has experienced 42 trips around the Sun as a head coach in the ACC. Those two opposite ends of the spectrum will meet in the middle, which happens to be in New Orleans, for a matchup that has the potential to be remembered for generations.
Backbones On Offense
While the off-court narratives and historical perspectives of this game are significant, that’s not going to be what decides the outcome. That will take place between the lines.
When Krzyzewski and Davis go to work for their respective teams, it’s at the controls of two of the best offenses in the country. Both offenses are led by an All-ACC frontcourt talent: Paolo Banchero and Armando Bacot.
Banchero is basketball modernity: a 6-foot-10, 250-pound playmaker who sees the floor and can make a variety of passing reads. Banchero is powerfully built; he looks like an old school power forward. His movements, though, are far different. The Seattle product isn’t a nuclear athlete, but he’s a smooth-mover and his skill level is off the charts.
With his quick processing, Banchero maps the floor like a player well beyond his age. Banchero can diagnose weak-side coverages and sense early help — before it arrives — when he drives to the basket.
Banchero seems to have a sense — at all times — of the locations of AJ Griffin and Mark Williams. Griffin floats between the wing and corner, looking for kick-out 3s. Williams, meanwhile, is screening and rolling or he’s parked in the dunker spot, waiting for a lob.
As Davis took over the UNC basketball program in the spring/summer of 2021, he quickly assembled a roster that would blend a strong group of returnees with several newcomers. Atop of the transfer list was Brady Manek, a stretch-4 who would open the floor up for Bacot, an All-ACC center in 2021.
The fit made a lot of sense on paper; however, that duo has worked out better than anyone could’ve expected. Those two, and the chemistry that play with, are the nexus of North Carolina’s half-court offense.
Bacot pressures the rim and caves in opposing defenses with his post game: 67 percent shooting at the rim, including 66 dunks. Manek stretches the defense, providing Bacot with valuable breathing room in the paint.
Obviously, Bacot’s interior gravity helps open things up for Manek, too. Davis has found ways to blend the two together, including a dynamic hi-lo partnership.
According to CBB Analytics, Manek has assisted on 42 of Bacot’s field goals this season, which is the third most of any two-person combination on UNC’s roster.
Compared to Banchero, Bacot is of a similar stature — 6-foot-10, 240 pounds; however, he applies his size and power differently.
In many ways, Bacot is built as the ideal Big Man for the college game: an industrious, savvy rebounder who mashes opponents in the paint and forces double teams.
As North Carolina’s defense has grown, Bacot’s improved screen-roll defense and rim protection have shined through.
Over the last 10 games, North Carolina ranks No. 8 nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency. That’s been a huge part of the team’s turnaround.
Bacot’s block rate is now up to 5.4 percent, and he’s made several big plays during the final month of the season by simply playing hard as hell.
Of course, both Bacot and Banchero are talented enough to shape-shift and swim in different waters.
When called upon, Banchero can smash smaller opponents in the post, too: 45.3 FG% on post-ups, per Synergy Sports.
Bacot is able to show his skill and craftiness on occasion, too, especially when the Tar Heels need to unlock an opposing defense with their short-roll game.
Bacot has dished out 2.0 assists per 40 minute this season — up from 1.4 per 40 last year.
In a sport like basketball that so obviously self-selects for height, it’s interesting that two of the smaller players on the floor in New Orleans could be the most important players in this game: sophomore point guards Jeremy Roach and RJ Davis.
Only 4 high-major players shooting 40 3P% (5 3PA per 100), 50 2P%, 80 FT% — with 10% assist rate
RJ Davis, UNC
Collin Gillespie, Villanova
Sasha Stefanovic, Purdue
Jacob Grandison, Illinois
(Dane Goodwin, Daivien Williamson are there in terms shooting, don't have AST%)
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) February 3, 2022
Both guards have been good-to-very-good all season; however, they’ve proven to be catalysts on offense when their teams needed it the most — down the stretch this season.
When North Carolina went all-in on the double point guard combination of Caleb Love and Davis to start the season, it meant that the two sophomore guards would need to split half-court creation duties.
During the 2020-21 season, North Carolina was +15 in 314 minutes with Love and Davis on the floor together, according to Pivot Analysis. The Tar Heels outscored their opponent by 2.8 points per 100 possessions in those minutes, including an offensive rating of 106.9 points per 100 possessions.
Well, in the 2021-22 season, with Hubert Davis crafting the offense, North Carolina is +309 in 1,065 minutes with Davis and Love on the court at the same time. During these minutes, UNC has a net rating of +17.6 points per 100 possessions, including an offensive rating of 121.0 points per 100 possessions, according to Pivot Analysis.
Obviously, UNC played more games this season than last year, but the Tar Heels have more than tripled the amount of minutes that Davis and Love have shared the floor.
Over half of Davis and Love’s combined minutes have also come with Leaky Black (the team’s go-to secondary creator), Manek and Bacot on the floor together, too. In fact, that’s become that most played lineup in the ACC this season.
UNC with RJ Davis/Love/Leaky/Manek + Bacot on the floor, per Pivot Analysis: +269 in 575 minutes
According to Evan Miya's data: this is now the most-played lineup in the ACC this season
A look at the team 7 lineups in the ACC (300+ possessions) in terms of adjusted efficiency pic.twitter.com/lxztS5JIhH
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) March 28, 2022
As the season’s progressed, Davis has taken on increased ownership of UNC’s spacey half-court offense, while Love has slid to more of a combo/attacking guard role.
To be clear, Love still gets plenty of pick-and-roll or isolation reps; he kickstarts a lot half-court offense. In this alignment, though, North Carolina can scheme stuff up for Love — moving the defense, then having him attack — or let him flow off the screen-roll activity of Davis, Bacot and Manek.
When UNC took down UCLA in the Sweet 16, the Tar Heels ran a lot of continuity ball screen offense. On three of those possessions, though, North Carolina tweaked the action. Davis and Bacot ran empty-corner pick-and-roll. Then, as Davis swung the ball to Manek in the slot, Love slipped underneath and flowed into a pass from Manek.
Once Love had the ball, he could look to shot off the catch or run secondary pick-and-roll with Bacot and, well, also look to shoot.
On this possession, Love goes to work vs. a switch with UCLA center Cody Riley.
Davis isn’t an overwhelming downhill driver with the basketball — à la Alondes Williams. Due to his size, Davis will likely never be a great finisher around the rim (52.3 FG%). However, he’s quick with the basketball and in his decision-making; Davis will use his zip to knife around ball screens (or split screens), get in the paint and force rotations. From there, he makes really good decisions with the basketball.
This is another Horns set UNC used vs. UCLA: Manek lifts out, receives a pass from Davis and immediately kicks it back. As this unfolds, Bacot lifts to set a ball screen, with the middle of the floor cleared and Love coming off an exit screen from Black in the corner.
Here’s that same look: this time, though, UCLA switches the screen, which leaves 5-foot-11, 180-pound Tyger Campbell on Bacot. Jaime Jaquez and Campbell try to switch behind the play, but with Manek cleared to the weak side of the floor, UCLA gets caught between coverages. Manek misses a clean look, which is followed by Bacot drawing a foul while going for the offensive rebound.
The UNC-UCLA game wasn’t exactly an up-and-down affair, but North Carolina and Davis found ways to be opportunistic with early ball-screen offense. As UCLA set its defense, UNC snapped into drag screen action with Davis and Bacot.
In these scenarios, Love becomes a dangerous kick-out target.
Love can look to shoot or get into his catch-and-go game — attacking downhill vs. a bent defense. Bacot now has 42 field goals this season assisted by Love, per CBB Analytics.
It’s a small sample, but over the last five games, Davis has seen a spike in both his usage rate (21.5 percent) and assist rate (23.1 percent), while his turnover numbers remain low (12.5 TOV%).
From the Baylor game: UNC runs after-timeout (ATO) Floppy action. Davis pounds the rock, while Love and Manek run out. Once again, the middle is cleared, Davis attacks and draws a fouls.
One of the things that makes Davis such a quality guard is his ability to play without the basketball, too. Black and Manek can really pass. Love can make plays for others when he starts to get downhill; his pocket passes have looked good recently. Bacot draws a ton of defensive attention when he catches the ball within 15 feet of the rim.
When these things happen, Davis can strike as a spot-up player. Here’s (I believe) another Floppy set from UNC, which flows into hi-lo action with Manek and Bacot. With Kendall Brown shading over to Bacot, James Akinjo must drop down on Dontrez Styles in the dunker spot, which frees Davis up for a catch-and-shoot 3.
According to Synergy, Davis has an effective shooting rate of 67 percent on spot-up attempts this season; he’s scored 1.29 points per spot-up possession, which ranks No. 16 nationally among players with 100+ possessions. (Notre Dame’s Dane Goodwin is the only ACC player above Davis in this category.)
Roach, on the other hand, has settled into a meatier on-ball role, which helped Duke’s offense to hit another gear against Michigan State, Texas Tech and Arkansas. The Blue Devils are playing with real synergy on offense: move the ball, build the advantage and attack.
Banchero is Duke’s half-court connector. He’s the guy who bridges actions. Banchero moves the ball from Roach at the start to Williams at the rim, Griffin in the corner or Wendell Moore Jr. and Trevor Keels cutting around.
Here’s Duke’s 1-4 Pitch action: Roach and Banchero split the floor and then come together so Banchero can receive a dribble handoff (DHO). Michigan State stays solid on the DHO, but when Banchero swings it back to Roach, AJ Hoggard gambles in the passing lane; Roach attacks and gets into the teeth off the defense. Once Julius Marble leaves his feet, Roach knows what to do: a quick drop-off pass to Williams for a dunk.
When Roach is able to bend the defense a little and then pass the ball to Banchero, it allows Duke’s frontcourt hub to survey the scene, get downhill and make reads.
This is empty-corner pick-and-pop with Roach and Banchero vs. Texas Tech’s no-middle defense. Roach rejects the screen and takes two Red Raiders with him. Quickly, Roach kicks the ball back to Banchero, who attacks the seam and forces another help rotation.
Moore could take the 3 here, but this is Duke building off each pass and cut: he turns it down, drives in and gets a layup. As a team, the Blue Devils shot 13-of-17 (76.5 FG%) at the rim in their Sweet 16 victory.
Roach, however, isn’t merely an offensive caretaker in these looks. His usage rate is above 22 percent over Duke’s last 10 games; he’s been empowered to attack, and the sophomore from Virginia is slashing with newfound verve.
Since the start of the NCAA Tournament, Roach has attempted four or more field goals at the rim in all four games: 11-of-17 at the basket (64.7 FG%). Going back to the matchup with UNC in Durham (8 games), Roach is 19-of-27 on attempts at the rim (70.4 FG%).
On this possession vs. TTU, Duke runs its “Buckeye” set — with slice/stagger action on the weak side. Theo John sets the slice screen for Keels, which Tech switches. Keels clears to the corner, taking Tech’s center with him. Banchero and John set staggered screens for Griffin, which occupies the weak-side help defender. Adonis Arms is in no-middle position, ready to funnel Roach baseline; however, all of his teammates are tied up or out of position. Roach catches this and pounces, dashing to the cup for a layup and a foul.
For the season, Roach is 53-of-91 at the rim (53.8 FG%), according to Bart Torvik’s shot data. Not only is Roach converting with greater efficiency at the bucket, but nearly 30 percent of his total rim attempts have over the last eight games.
Snake It, Take It
North Carolina’s defense has made big strides in recent weeks. The formula for success is a relatively conservative approach: keep the ball out of the middle, let Black take out one of the opponent’s top perimeter players and have Bacot protect the rim.
With Bacot guarding pick-and-roll in a drop position, opponents can be forced into taking tough 2-point attempts.
The Tar Heels, on defense, rank No. 349 nationally in turnover rate: 13.9 percent. This is on pace to be the lowest defensive turnover percentage for a season since at least the 1996-97 campaign, when Dean Smith was still the head coach, according to KenPom.
On the flip side, North Carolina closes possessions down by cleaning the glass and avoiding costly fouls. UNC ranks top 10 nationally in both defensive rebound rate (78.8 percent) and opponent free throw attempt rate (21.2 percent). This is a noticeable math advantage.
North Carolina is coached to avoid beating themselves on defense, but there are weaknesses and areas to attack.
When UNC attempts to take away the middle, the Tar Heels will Ice side ball screens and work to keep the ball pinned on one side of the floor. This can be effective, but Baylor found success by angling empty-side ball screens and snaking back to the middle.
Watch how Jeremy Sochan flips his screen on Love at the last second. Adam Flagler dribbles right and snakes back across the path of Sochan’s screen. With Bacot in the paint, Flager drills a floater over a poor contest from Love.
This is still a pretty tough shot for Flagler, but the look is there. When in rhythm, good offensive players can take and make these shots, especially if the on-ball shot contest isn’t there.
Those snake moves vs. drop become even more precarious for the defense when it allows the ball handler to get downhill. Once again, Flagler snakes and attacks. Flo Thamba seals Bacot in the lane with a de facto second screen and Flager gets a layup.
From the game in Durham: here’s an ATO play from Duke. Williams raises to screen for Roach; Manek gets set to help Davis pin the ball screen. Williams then flips his screen. Roach is unable to turn the corner or snake back, but Banchero slides over to connect the action, while Williams seals Manek for a hi-lo dunk.
Next, Love and Bacot Ice this Keels-Williams pick-and-roll, although Williams never screens, unlike Sochan. Keels is still able to bully his ways in on Love, snake back and hit Williams for a layup.
Love has issues defending at the point of attack, too.
Davis, however, will likely get the matchup with Roach, an on-ball creator that can make hay against these Ice looks — especially with how he’s driving the ball these days.
If that’s the case, then Moore and Keels could be the ones with side pick-and-roll opportunities.
Can Duke put Brady Manek in the action?
When UNC hosted Duke in February, Hubert Davis started the game with Bacot on Banchero. Once Bacot was hit with two early fouls, though, North Carolina scrambled the matchups: Black slid over to Banchero, while Manek and Bacot altered between Griffin and Williams.
Unsurprisingly, Griffin ran wild in the game: 27 points on 11-of-17 shooting, including a personal 10-0 run to start the second half, which effectively ended the game.
North Carolina didn’t have many options, but it’s a lot to ask Manek and Bacot to chase a talent like Griffin around pindowns and handoffs.
During the rematch, UNC shifted the matchups, again: Black was back on Griffin, Bacot took Williams and Manek was left to guard Banchero — with plenty of supplemental help.
With Black as his primary defender, Griffin attempted only five shots. His lone 3-pointer came in transition, too. Leaky did his job. Duke can’t let that happen on Saturday; Griffin needs shots.
For Duke, Griffin is the guy that takes the top off of opposing defenses. His movement shooting and NBA range alter the geometry vs. the Blue Devils in the half court. Wipe that away and Duke’s offense gets a little more stagnant, a little more cramped.
On paper, it seems like Banchero should be able to roast Manek 1-on-1. Right off the top, some shots will always be available. Assuming UNC sticks with these matchups, Banchero will have open midrange looks in isolation.
As long as Manek puts up a healthy contest, North Carolina will likely live with these looks. You can’t take away everything, and this is a decent defensive compromise.
What’s less good for UNC is when Banchero can attack the space, get to his downhill spin move, draw help and make plays with his teammates.
When Banchero goes into this mode, help defenders must be ready to show early or disguise their help and then recover. Currently, Banchero is cooking teams when they help on him.
Attacking Manek 1-on-1 really isn’t the best way to go at North Carolina’s power forward. It can work, but there are other pathways — ones that yield greater offensive potential.
Manek is 6-foot-9 and 230 pounds. He has good size and lot of basketball experience. He’ll compete hard in these short-space settings.
If an offense voluntarily compresses the amount of ground Manek must cover, well, it simplifies his defensive workload. As long as Manek is at least in the way of Banchero, and not picking up fouls, then this assignment can work (well enough) for UNC.
The same was true when North Carolina took on UCLA: Manek covered Jaquez, another frontcourt playmaker that likes to isolate.
Early on, UCLA looked to have Jaquez go at Manek in 1-on-1 situations.
Once again, though, Manek mostly held his ground in the mid-post area.
As a result, UCLA started to involve Jaquez as a screener. (For whatever it’s worth, I believe this is how Duke should attack Manek: put him in space and force him to defend actions.)
On this possession: Mick Cronin screams and gestures like a traffic cop for Jaquez to screen for Campbell. Manek shows hard on the screen, which Campbell rejects.
Here’s UCLA’s next half-court possession on offense: the Bruins run a set with Johnny Juzang (defended by Black) and Jaquez setting staggered slip screens. Once again, Manek shows and Jaquez is wide open for a 3-point attempt.
Later on in the game, though, when things slowed down, UCLA (for some reason) went back to trying to isolate Jaquez on Manek.
North Carolina’s defense held its ground.
Whether Manek is showing aggressively or dropping in Ice coverage: if he’s on Banchero, the Blue Devils should involve Banchero as a screener in as many actions as possible.
North Carolina’s destruction of Duke down the stretch last month at Cameron Indoor came courtesy of the team’s spread pick-and-roll actions and the Manek-Bacot duo.
All season long, the Tar Heels have carved opponents up with a couple go-to pick-and-roll sets. Here’s one of those calls: an ATO Spain pick-and-roll set. Bacot sets a ball screen on Roach for Davis. Manek lifts and sets a back screen on Williams. After which, Manek pops beyond the arc. Due to the confusion of the set and a lack of communication, Duke is caught in between coverages. As a result, Davis moonwalks into an open 3.
North Carolina will add another wrinkle to its Spain action by having Manek start the play with an off-ball screen for Bacot, who then sets the ball screen for the point guard.
This screen-the-screener action can be referred to as “Ram” or “Wedge.” Banchero and Williams botch the coverage and Manek floats into an open catch-and-shoot 3.
Here’s that same look, although on this possession Love rejects the screen and gets downhill. Duke’s defense is in scramble mode as Manek misses an open look from deep. Duke gets a stop on this possession, but that’s not good process vs. UNC.
Earlier in the game, the Blue Devils did a much better job switch an ATO Ram Spain pick-and-roll set for North Carolina. This is a really nice job by Griffin and Keels to nail the initial switch, then for Keels to communicate with Banchero the off-ball switch with Manek. The lack of Bacot on this specific play makes it easier to cover, too, for Duke.
As a counter, Duke tried switching the initial ball screen vs. North Carolina’s Spain pick-and-roll, which left the 7-foot Williams on an island vs. Davis.
This adjustment took Duke out of its base defense and removed Williams from inflicting pain as a shot blocker at the basket.
The chess match continued, though. Duke downsized, took Williams off the floor and moved Banchero to the center position. In theory, this adjustment should allow Duke to switch 1-5 more freely. With Roach on Bacot and Banchero on Davis, though, UNC was able to go to work.
On this possession: UNC runs its Horns Exit action. Bacot looks to post-up on Roach, but Moore does a nice job showing back-side help. The ball cycles back to Davis, who manages to beat Banchero 1-on-1.
The “Banchero at 5” lineups have been pretty good for the Blue Devils this season: +46 in 169 minutes, per Pivot Analysis. Things didn’t go so well vs. UNC, though, in Durham: Duke was -9 in five minutes without a true center on the floor.
Here’s more of that Horns Exit action for North Carolina. Love rejects the screen before Duke can switch, attacks the space and creates an open layup for a cutting Manek.
To close the game out, UNC was happy to let Davis pick at the matchup vs. Banchero. When help arrived, Davis made good passes.
Even if the initial shot didn’t fall, Roach was tasked with boxing out Bacot, a prolific offensive rebounder with a massive size advantage.
Zone Booth: What’s the call?
During the last matchup, Duke tried only two possessions of zone defense. Could that be more of a defensive tool this time around, especially if Duke’s pick-and-roll defense proves leaky?
Duke recently moved to No. 1 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. On the other side of the floor, though, this isn’t an elite defense, which creates concern for the matchup with UNC, a top-20 offense in the country.
The Blue Devil hover around the 45-50 nationally in terms of defensive efficiency. Duke defended well vs. Arkansas: allowing under 0.99 points per possession. In recent weeks, however, the Blue Devils have allowed the following opponents to score above 1.09 points per possession:
- Syracuse (twice), North Carolina, Miami, Virginia Tech, Michigan State and Texas Tech.
As a postseason curveball, Duke has mixed in more zone in the NCAA Tournament. It was a big tool for the Blue Devils in the second half vs. Texas Tech.
By my (unofficial) charting: 16 half-court possessions of 2-3 zone for Duke vs. Texas Tech:
15 points (0.94 ppp), 5-14 FGA, 2-7 3PA, 2 TOV, 2 shooting fouls (3-4 FTA)
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) March 25, 2022
Two days later, it helped against the Razorbacks as well.
I charted Duke with 12 more possessions of half-court zone defense in the win over Arkansas. This includes three ATO possessions — starting with just before halftime.
Another ATO zone possession included Duke starting in a 2-3 base, then shifting to more of a matchup look, which led to a miss by Arkansas.
The Blue Devils mixing in some more matchup-based principles — as opposed to sticking to a more strict 2-3 concept — is interesting. (I’m storing this aspect away.)
By no means was Duke’s zone impenetrable. Arkansas was able to establish some level of success by screening the top of the zone or going quickly and playing through the corners.
However, the zone served its purpose. Similar to the TTU game, Duke squeezed enough enough juice out of it to through Arkansas out of rhythm on offense.
The question now becomes: will Duke try the zone against North Carolina? If so, will that application be active or reactive? By that, would the Blue Devils try their zone as an off-speed pitch — even if it’s just to short-circuit an ATO play call?
When Duke and UNC met in Durham earlier this season, the Blue Devils tried a little bit of zone. That move was reactive, though: the Tar Heels cooked out of the pick-and-roll. Duke was desperate to try anything and everything to disrupt North Carolina, but it wasn’t happening that game.
North Carolina is a difficult team to zone, too. Hubert Davis has three excellent spot-up shooters in his rotation: Manek, Davis and Love. Bacot is a devastating offensive rebounder, who can also roam the baseline and look for catches in the dunker spot. Black and Manek can both work as high-post passers at the nail.
With that in mind, it seems more likely that Duke’s zone will remain in Coach K’s back pocket. It worked the last two rounds, but that doesn’t mean it’ll travel south to New Orleans. Although the hi-lo combination of Manek and Bacot start to feast against Duke’s base coverages, then the zone could be deployed. It’s risky, though.