There will be a lot on the line when Duke and North Carolina compete for the second time this season. If you’ve lived under a rock since last June, the matchup will be Mike Krzyzewski’s final home game. This will also be the final game Krzyzewski coaches in the state of North Carolina. It’s a finale of sorts and, depending on how things sort out in the postseason, this could very well be the last time Coach K faces his best-known rival.
Beyond the storylines and bragging rights, the Blue Devils are looking to improve their NCAA Tournament seeding. Given the amount of future NBA talent on the floor, it’s another opportunity for some of the best players in the country to shine — with the eyes of the Sports Universe on Durham.
Before we move forward to Saturday night, let’s set the stage and look back to the first meeting between these two teams.
Who Will Leaky Black and Armando Bacot Defend?
One of the hinge points I highlighted before the February matchup centered on the defense of senior wing Leaky Black. Who would Leaky defend: AJ Griffin, Paolo Banchero or Wendell Moore Jr.? This was one of the most important questions for North Carolina to answer.
Duke opened the game with its Horns Elbow action for Banchero. In a matchup of All-ACC big men, Armando Bacot drew the Banchero assignment, while Black, UNC’s top defender, took Griffin. Brady Manek landed on Mark Williams.
Banchero isolated vs. Bacot and splashed a fadeaway jumper from the midrange.
On the very next possession, with Duke in its half-court flow, Griffin drained his first 3-pointer, right over the top of Black.
At this point of his young career, Banchero isn’t a knockdown 3-point shooter, although he’s hit a respectable 33 percent of his attempts from beyond the arc (33-of-100 3PA).
All season long, UNC has struggled vs. spread pick-and-roll action, especially when the opposing screener can threaten as a scorer. Bacot and Manek are big and play hard as hell; however, they lack lateral quickness. Caleb Love has lots of talent and tools, but he’s weak at the point of attack. This makes North Carolina’s defense vulnerable vs. a screener/playmaker like Banchero.
Here’s another Horns set from Duke, 75 seconds into the game. As Jeremy Roach dribbles off the screen, Bacot plays to the level and drops, slightly. Meanwhile, Williams — with Manek as his defender — rolls and Banchero pops. The result is an open 3-pointer.
This is simple action, but when Williams rolls, he takes Manek into the paint; there’s no weak-side stunt, either. Therefore, Banchero pops into a huge pocket of space. There’s no way Bacot can reasonably cover that much ground.
North Carolina wants to “Ice” side ball screens — pinning the action on one side of the floor. However, that type of coverage opens the middle of the floor to Banchero, who can shoot from deep or attack a mini-advantage situation.
Duke game out of the gate red-hot, but — when Banchero caught the ball from a standstill — Bacot was able to hold his ground vs. the one-and-done supernova.
Here, North Carolina “Ices” the Roach-Williams screen-roll, which turns into another isolation look for Banchero vs. a set defense.
This is a late-clock scenario, it’s not like Banchero has all day to make a play. However, Hubert Davis will live with the 6-foot-10, 250-pound passing/play-finishing juggernaut settling for step-backs or fadeaway jumpers in the midrange.
Banchero, who is shooting 38.9 percent on long 2s this season, is awesome. He’ll make his fair share of those jumpers, but that’s better for UNC than P5 looking to drive downhill. If Banchero hits those jumpers, just pack it up and go home.
Bacot’s time on the floor in the early portion of the game didn’t last long, though.
First, Bacot picked up his initial foul on a transition cross-match with Williams. With good/early post position, Williams easily spun off Bacot, used a shot fake to get UNC’s star into the air and finished with an and-one layup.
Less than 40 seconds later, on Duke’s next half-court possession, the Blue Devils ran empty-corner pick-and-pop with Roach and Banchero. Black looked as though he was ready to Ice the screen and pin Roach on that side of the floor. Bacot isn’t in Ice position, though — closer towards the baseline. Regardless, Roach is still able to get to the middle of the floor, which forces RJ Davis to help at the nail. Roach has two kick-out options, both of whom are wide open: Moore or Banchero.
Roach opts for Banchero, which forces a hard closeout from Bacot. (Remember: Banchero hit a pick-and-pop 3 a minute or two earlier in the game.) Banchero, of course, has the ability to attack a hard closeout. He’s a quick processor with a sick handle. He drives and draws the second foul on Bacot.
With two fouls at the 16:55 mark, Davis pulled Bacot out of the game; Puff Johnson entered. Black would shift to Banchero, who he’d spend the majority game defending. Johnson flipped to Griffin, a gifted scorer who moves beautifully without the basketball — both as a shooter and a cutter around the basket.
On Johnson’s first possession, the Blue Devils ran their baseline out-of-bounds (BLOB) Stack screen-the-screener (STS) action for Griffin. With Moore inbounding the ball, Griffin screens for Banchero, then exits in the other direction off a screen from Williams. Johnson actually does well to recover and contest; however, Griffin powers it up for a quick-hitting 2.
During the very next trip down the floor, Duke executed another BLOB play; this time, though, it’s a quick curl/pindown jumper for Griffin vs. Johnson.
When Bacot returned to the floor at 11:24, Duke held a 27-8 advantage. Things had unraveled for the Tar Heels.
Duke’s Defense When Bacot Sits
North Carolina’s starting lineup of Love, Davis, Black, Manek and Bacot has played 414 minutes this season, per Pivot Analysis. (According to Evan Miya’s data, only two other ACC lineups have played more possessions together than this group.) The Tar Heels are +187 with this lineup on the floor, which includes an offensive rating of 123.4 points per 100 possessions. That’s really good.
Bench players, however, have accounted for only 20.6 percent of North Carolina’s minutes this season — one of the smallest percentages in the country (No. 348), per KenPom. So far, according to Pivot Analysis: Love, Davis, Black and Manek have played only 41 minutes (+3) together this season sans Bacot and Dawson Garcia.
Take one piece out of that equation — Bacot, in this case — and things get dicey, quickly. When that one piece happens to be UNC’s best option for putting pressure on the rim, it alters how opponents can defend the Tar Heels. (Bacot is also North Carolina’s lone of rim protection: 5.8 percent block rate.)
In terms of his skill set, Bacot isn’t an above-the-rim run-jump athlete, nor is he a dynamic short-roll creator, although he’s shown flashes while attacking in space 4-on-3 this season.
The Tar Heels have even used Bacot as a ball handler in the pick-and-roll this season — with inverted 5-1 looks from Horns elbow/iso sets.
Despite the fact that he’s not much of a lob threat, Bacot still possesses power a rim-runner. Bacot can catch it in space and still finish.
The 6-foot-10 Bacot leads North Carolina with 54 dunks this season, which ranks second in the ACC. (Duke’s Williams is tops in the league by a wide margin: 74 dunks.) He’s also shooting 67.1 percent around the rim, per Bart Torvik’s shot data.
According to Synergy Sports, Bacot has shot 70.8 percent when he screens-and-rolls or slips to the basket this season: 1.19 points per possession. No one else on the active roster is even close to that — in terms of volume or efficiency.
The upshot: Bacot is the hammer that allows North Carolina’s offense to get north-south in the half court.
In general, Duke wants Williams defend ball-screen action fairly high — a little below the level of the screen. That can be important, too, when Love — a dangerous off-dribble 3-point bomber — is coming off the ball screen. This, however, forces rotations on the back side of the defense. Help defenders must be ready to tag the roller, rotate and recover.
This looks like UNC’s Chin pick-and-roll action, although there’s no back screen set for Black. Regardless, Bacot sets the ball screen for Love, with Williams a step inside the arc. Williams stays with Love for a dribble, while Moore fights over. With Davis (40.3 3P%) spaced to the weak-side corner, Bacot has lots of space to roll into; Love threads in a gorgeous pocket pass. Bacot catches and gathers a head of steam in the middle of the lane before any defender tags or touches him, which results in a layup.
Throughout the season, the Heels have run a lot of this Spain pick-and-roll action: a stack ball screen look, with Manek setting an off-ball back screen for Bacot as he rolls to the rim. Even when Bacot doesn’t receive the ball, his roll, mixed with Manek’s pop, scrambles ball-screen coverages and allows UNC’s guards to get downhill.
Davis (54.7 FG% at the rim) is smaller than Love, but he drives the ball with more zip.
When Bacot is on the bench, though, Duke doesn’t have to worry about his gravity as a roller. Here’s one of the first possessions for UNC with Bacot out of the game: Duke switches Williams on Love and Moore on Manek. Without any rotations, this takes away the initial catch-and-shoot 3 for Manek on the pop.
Love is an explosive scorer at the guard position; however, unless he’s able to play off his step-back jumper, the sophomore from St. Louis struggles to reliably create separation when he drives to the basket. Williams is impossibly long and active. The big fella will compete on a switch. So, too, will backup center Theo John, who is smaller but defends well laterally.
Banchero has been used frequently as a switch defender this season as well — guarding 1-5 when asked.
Manek has a size advantage, but Moore is an excellent defender and strong enough to compete in the post. North Carolina can go to Manek in these situation and let him shoot over Moore, but as long as those shots — from beyond the arc or near the paint — are well-contested, then Duke will live with that.
This time, Moore shades over at the nail to help Williams vs. Love, which gives Manek (38.9 3P%) enough space to catch-and-launch. Manek doesn’t need much time or space.
Here, North Carolina goes to its continuity ball screen offense — with Leaky as a screener. Moore and Williams Ice the empty-side ball screen. Black is shooting a good ball from deep this year (44.8 3P% in ACC play), but the volume is low and he still needs time to line up his shot and release. Instead, on this possession, he catches and doesn’t even look at the rim.
UNC runs a ball screen, but the defense doesn’t have to move: all five players are outside of the arc when Black receives the pass. Duke’s defensive versatility and athleticism can be scary.
Bacot and Manek on AJ: Time to Panic
During the first matchup, Black put together a nice individual defensive effort vs. Banchero. The Seattle native finished with 13 points, but shot just 3-of-10 on 2-point attempts and attempted only two free throws.
Of course, even when Banchero doesn’t score, he still loosens things up for Duke’s offense. As a force in the middle third on the floor, Banchero routinely draws the toughest defensive assignment and forces help rotations with his creation efforts.
With Black on Banchero, UNC was limited in terms of players to throw at Griffin. Davis tried to make it work with Manek or Bacot on Griffin; however, to the surprise of no one, that strategy didn’t work. Griffin went off for a career-high 27 points.
Here’s how Duke started the second half — with a handoff action between Williams and Griffin, defended by Manek.
This action forces Manek to be an on-ball defender against a screen, which is simply something he’s not used to, nor is he really equipped to handle.
Moreover, those handoff concepts were savvy attempts for Duke to pick at some low-hanging fruit.
UNC defenders guarding Williams sagged off the 7-footer. Williams doesn’t have the shooting or ball handling to attack that space; however, one obvious counter to this tactic is a simple handoff. When Williams hands the ball to Griffin and screens, the most natural help defender — Bacot — isn’t up on Williams, which creates a pocket of space of Griffin.
Griffin has more than enough shooting touch and craft to destroy that advantage situation.
Here’s another handoff exchange between Williams and Griffin. This time, though, Manek and Bacot switch. Griffin shoots with a wide base, but with his wingspan (7-foot) and fluidity, the rookie wing can get his shot off in tight spaces or over a closeout.
In my preview before the first game, I wondered if that matchup alone — Manek on Griffin — was a a bridge too far for North Carolina.
That’s risky, though: UNC would be exposed on the glass and, given Banchero’s ability to draw contact (drawing 5.1 fouls per 40 minutes this season), it could endanger Black to foul trouble. Johnson is new to the rotation, too. It’s hard to gauge his role for this type of game.
Hubert Davis could go with this tactic right from the jump. If that happens, then Brady Manek would need to chase Griffin, which seems less than optimal for UNC. That alone may be a deal-breaker.
On the very next possession of the second half, the Blue Devils went to their Floppy action. Griffin ran off a baseline bump screen from Banchero and drained another 3 over Manek, who tried valiantly to keep up.
All of this Griffin-on-Manek violence took place within the first three minutes of the second half. What had been an 11-point lead for Duke at halftime now sat at 21. By that point, the game was pretty much over.
Nevertheless, Davis and UNC had to keep trying. Davis kept Black on Banchero, but shifted Manek back to Williams and placed Bacot on Griffin.
This, in turn, opened up the lane for Duke. Griffin, who floats around the arc, pulled Bacot away from the rim. The Blue Devils could also then drag Manek into pick-and-roll action as the screen defender.
Black does a nice job covering Banchero on Duke’s Horns 5-4 handoff action, but the Blue Devils keep it moving, reverse sides of the floor and run slot pick-and-roll for Roach. North Carolina Ices the ball screen, but Williams angles his screen perfectly, which allows Roach to turn the corner on Davis and get downhill. From there, Manek retreats and offers but only so much resistance.
By most accounts, North Carolina is a good defensive rebounding team — save for the early-season matchup with Kentucky, when Oscar Tshiebwe smashed North Carolina’s frontline into a jelly. Despite that game, UNC ranks third nationally in defensive rebound rate. The Tar Heels have grabbed nearly 79 percent of opponent missed field goals.
However, when Griffin pulls Bacot, who ranks inside the top 10 nationally in defensive rebound rate (30.9 percent), away from the basket, UNC is exposed for second-chance opportunities.
Here, Duke runs its Pitch 1-4 action for Banchero. Once again, Black takes away the drive, which forces a contested midrange jumper. Moore, who never remains static on offense (he’s always cutting and moving without the ball), slices in from the corner and taps in the miss.
This is a bad look for Love, who has a tendency to ball watch or lose contact with his man in off-ball situations. Williams is right there, too, playing over the top of Manek (15.8 percent defensive rebound rate).
Overall, the Blue Devils rebounded 30.8 percent of their missed field goals, which is the highest offensive rebound rate UNC has allowed vs. an ACC opponent this season.
With Bacot on Griffin, Duke put its star shooter in off-ball actions, too. Early in the second half, Duke used Floppy. Later on, though, the Blue Devils went to this empty-side pindown action that they’ve run for years now. Griffin’s gotten really comfortable with this action this season. Bacot, on the other hand, isn’t accustomed to chasing off-ball movers like Griffin around pindowns.
Banchero is a powerful screener, too. One, he isn’t afraid of contract; he’ll happily set a hard screen. Two, he’s such an offensive talent, his defender may not want to leave him to help on the player coming off the screen.
Johnson has size and length, but he struggled chasing Griffin around designed off-ball screen actions. During the last month, Johnson has played more, though — 12.8 minutes per game over the last 10 contests. He could be in line for a larger role this time around.
Dating back to the Florida State win (Feb. 12), Johnson has played 65 total minutes. North Carolina is +20 with Puff on the floor over that stretch, per Pivot Analysis.
Johnson’s versatility as a switch defender and activity as a team defender are certainly interesting. He’s shown flashes as a spot-up shooter (4-of-17 3PA), but for now he’s a bit of a liability on offense. That said, UNC needs something off the bench and Johnson has usurped Kerwin Walton in the rotation.
Walton played great vs. Duke last season; he drained 8-of-11 3-point attempts across the two victories. He’s struggled as a sophomore to find consistent minutes, though. The jumper has slumped and his defense just isn’t there, at this point. There’s still a lot of shooting talent with Walton, but it’ll be interesting to see if he gets on the floor in Durham.
Dontrez Styles is another wingy forward that UNC could try. Styles has size and athleticism. He’s just a freshman, though, and raw on offense. If Styles is asked to play real minutes at Cameron, that likely means North Carolina is in trouble.
Davis and his staff will aim/hope to play only 6-7 guys: the starting five and Johnson. Beyond the first five, there’s very little certainty, which is why the Tar Heels must avoid foul trouble and nail their defensive assignments.
UNC tried zone for five defensive possessions in the last meeting, too. The Tar Heels could look to mix that in again, especially if the man-to-man coverages have issues; however, it didn’t go great.
I've wondered if/when we'd see zone defense from UNC this season — by my count, 5 zone possessions vs. Duke (7 total this season, per Synergy)
Duke: 1-3 3PA – all clean looks (1-2 3PA Roach, 0-1 3PA AJ), 1-1 2PA (Banchero nail jumper), 1 shooting foul (Banchero nail, 1-2 FTA) https://t.co/GbDRguWcOY
— Brian Geisinger (@bgeis_bird) February 6, 2022
Duke’s personnel is built to crush a zone: Banchero at the nail, Griffin flying around the perimeter for 3s and Williams handing around the basket in the dunker spot, looking for lobs or offensive rebounds.
Can Love Lockdown?
The hi-lo connection of Manek and Bacot is the nexus of North Carolina’s offense. Black sets the tone on defense as one of the better cover guys in the ACC. At point guard, Davis is the link-up player: he kickstarts North Carolina’s transition/secondary activity and spaces the floor around Bacot.
The fifth piece of the puzzle is Caleb Love. With his deep step-back shooting capabilities, Love is the player that takes this offense to another level. Over 48 percent of Love’s 3-pointers this season have come unassisted. When he starts hitting those bombs, it alters the geometry of North Carolina’s offense.
All of a sudden, little pockets of space open as the opponent presses up on ball screen actions. This creates gaps for Black or Manek as cutters. Bacot has more room in the paint or on the roll. Love can also leverage that pull-up gravity to get downhill.
UNC isn’t an elite defense; this team doesn’t force many turnovers (14.2 TOV%). On the other side of the floor, this results in a lot of half-court offense. North Carolina can be really good in this scenario, but this is why Love is North Carolina’s ceiling-raiser. When he’s on, everything else becomes easier in the half court.
Love, however, was off-kilter in this first matchup with Duke this season. With Moore as the primary defender, Love shot just 3-of-10 from the field (8 points), attempted only two free throws and turned the ball over four times.
Again, Love struggles to separate in 1-on-1 scenarios, which results in difficult, contested off-dribble attempts and some head-scratching passes. The decision-making here — throwing back across a set Duke defense — just isn’t great.
Even with some better finishing efforts in recent games, Love is still shooting just 39.1 percent on 2-point attempts.
This zipper action out of Horns into a pindown, dribble handoff and ball screen for Love has become a staple of North Carolina’s offense. However, Griffin and Williams pinch Love, who heaves an awful shot somewhere in the direction of the rim.
His free throw attempt rate is up this season (30.2 percent) and he’s drawing fouls at an elevated rate (4.0 per 40 minutes), though, which is encouraging.
At times in the first game, it felt like Love was pressing, especially once UNC fell into the initial hole — as if he were trying to score 15 points on one possession. Duke does a nice job getting back in transition here, but Love, in theory, should be able to light up a cross-match vs. Bates Jones.
Moore is one of the best two-way players in the country. He turned Love’s water off in the first matchup, too. Unless Love can hit a few off-dribble 3-pointers to loosen things up, Moore will make him earn everything inside the arc. That real estate won’t come easy.
Saturday’s game will likely double as the final home game for Moore, too, a team captain and projected first round draft pick. You know he’ll empty the bucket in front of his fans one last time, which means Love — assuming he draws Moore on defense — will need to guard with more verve.
Early on, Duke runs its Horns Flex action. Moore starts things by entering the ball to Banchero at the elbow, then cuts off a back screen from Williams. As part of UNC’s game plan, Manek is way off Williams, which covers Moore up for a second on the back cut; however, Love gets stuck on the screen and then takes a terrible path back to Moore, which results in a layup.
Moore finished the game with 13 points. All six of Moore’s field goal attempts came at the rim; he made five. Moore also kicked out five assists — with zero turnovers.
On this possession, the Blue Devils run their baseline runner action, which Love tries to cheat by going over the top and gambling for the steal, a nasty tendency that he repeats far too often. Moore attacks and draws a foul.
I’ve written about this before, but few players leave themselves more exposed on crossover rejections than Love. Frequently, this is an issue atop North Carolina’s wobbly pick-and-roll defense, but it can rear its ugly head in iso/downhill situations as well.
Trevor Keels is a bowling ball of a driver, but Duke literally doesn’t have to do anything on this possession to get a piece of the paint. Six seconds into the shot clock, Keels crosses Love over and it’s a wrap after that.
Keels has the leverage and strength to hold off Love; he gets all the rim to the rim, forces help from Bacot and then it’s an easy lay-down pass for John.
The way these mini games-within-the-game unfold will influence the last chapter in one of the greatest rivalries in sports: Coach K and Duke vs. UNC.
No matter what happens on Saturday, history will be made.