Let’s be real. We’ve been spoiled. Duke and UNC have not faced each other with neither team ranked since 1960. That’s an insane statistic no matter how you slice it. You may be tired of the rivalry if those teams aren’t your cup of tea, and I get it. But it’s a game that was so popular and so meaningful that it literally built a network. It didn’t come from nowhere.
And it might be fair to say that this game loses a lot of its luster with both teams being in the state that they’re in. But I’d counter that by saying the stakes are different now. On Thursday, Mike Krzyzewski said that the stakes weren’t what made the games memorable between these two because the stakes weren’t national-championship related necessarily, even if a 1-seed was on the line. Both teams were going to make the NCAA Tournament. That is far from a given this year, and any win these teams can get would help them a lot towards making sure they get there. For Duke more even than North Carolina, but both need it as UNC’s back stretch is not forgiving. It has the type of meaning that many wouldn’t prefer if you’re a fan of either team, but it’s a meaning nonetheless and a real consequence of winning or losing this game beyond bragging rights.
But, yeah, fine. It’s not going to be as good. So don’t watch it if you don’t want to! You don’t have to hate-tweet your way through it. Just a PSA from me, your friendly ACC writer, to you.
And there’s a third Triangle team playing with plenty on the line as well: NC State vs. one of its biggest rivals, Conte Forum. Er, Boston College. NC State has played well against opponents it was not favored to beat. It will certainly be favored in this game. But can they keep up the effort and toughness they’ve brought to the last two games?
In the meantime, to the GIFs!
NC STATE (7-7, 3-6 ACC) AT BOSTON COLLEGE (3-10, 1-6 ACC)
Time: 12 p.m.
TV: ACC Network
You know how sometimes you have a bad day and you complain to someone rather casually about it and they manage to top it with something far worse, only making you recoil in shame and self-loathing? Well, that’s kind of NC State chatting to Boston College. The Eagles were poised to play Florida State in spite of having FOUR scholarship players available this week before FSU had to go on a COVID pause.
The Eagles have exactly one ACC win and it took them 18 made 3-pointers to get it. And they have three losses by a combined 19 points to four different Ken Pom top-100 teams, including two in ACC play (plus Minnesota in overtime and Villanova). One of those close losses? At NC State, and a full-strength NC State at that. In hindsight, it was probably time to be concerned about NC State at that point, but playing Boston College is always weird. And playing at BC is even weirder. NC State is 3-6 in Chestnut Hill since 2007. Kevin Keatts is 1-1 and got NC State’s most convincing win there in quite some time back in 2019, but the loss there last year to 179th-ranked BC was the worst loss of the Keatts era in Ken Pom rankings. And that’s the reason the losses have stuck out — Boston College has not been good, and yet, NC State can’t win very winnable games against them. They’ve always ranked 100th or worse and the losses have been costly. Mark Gottfried was 2-2 against them on the road with the 2015 loss nearly costing them an NCAA Tournament berth and the 2017 loss sending the team deeper into a downward spiral that had begun the game before with a 50-point loss at UNC.
History and precedent matter little, of course. Boston College hasn’t played since January 16. This NC State team has done everything in its power to fight through its adversity of losing Devon Daniels and just, well, *waves hands wildly at everything*. But it’s impossible to know what BC will look like with four scholarship players, maybe five if the Eagles are lucky. And it’s even less possible to know when they’re coming off a layoff of nearly a month. In the first meeting, NC State had the second-highest turnover percentage by a BC opponent this season and led BC post its best offensive rebounding percentage of the year, so those things can’t happen again. But NC State also forced BC into its second-highest turnover percentage of the year and that needs to keep happening. One thing NC State has done really well during this stretch is play much better defense. That energy level needs to stay high because NC State has fought so hard against opponents it had no business beating, but this is one it should beat. To see how the Wolfpack responds to that difference after two straight disappointments will be a big key to how they’ll likely play the rest of the way.
NAMES TO KNOW
D.J. Funderburk. Kevin Keatts’ decision not to play Funderburk down the stretch of the Virginia game likely does not have a simple explanation and it likelier goes beyond Keatts being concerned about defense. But regardless of what you think of it, it’s clear that Keatts is going to give Funderburk a chance. He wouldn’t have played him at all otherwise. If there’s a trust issue there, Funderburk can still prove him wrong.
Last year, Funderburk played 60.7% of NC State’s available minutes and this year, it’s down to 40.4 percent. Even though his stats are very good. Some of it has been foul trouble, but not all. During the Virginia game, he finished the highest percentage of possessions while he was in the game of any game in his career (38%) but his ORtg (offensive efficiency rating) was his second-worst of the season. Now a lot of that damage was done early — he was 0 of 4 shooting in the first half in 10 minutes and had three rebounds, a foul and a turnover. And the first and second half difference is perhaps the most apt summary of Funderburk’s season to date, and maybe even NC State’s as a whole. He didn’t start the second half. But when he was in the game, he made the most of his second-half minutes. When he entered the game, UVa led by eight. When he left, NC State led by one and he scored nine points of an 11-2 NC State run. (Even with that, if you’re into +/-, he was a -4 for the game.) He did all of that in eight minutes, which was fewer than all but one of NC State’s eight-man rotation saw in the second half.
Maybe it’s true that Keatts thought Funderburk and Bates playing together was a bad matchup for Virginia’s versatile bigs. Maybe it’s true he thought Bates would be just as capable of getting stops and scoring as Funderburk. And it’s worth remembering that between Bates’ ankle and Funderburks’ COVID issues and suspension, there weren’t a lot of games that the two could have played together this year and maybe Keatts doesn’t feel as comfortable doing it this year as he did last year. Who knows?
In the first game against BC this year, Funderburk responded well to Bates tweaking an ankle and finished with a game-high 21 points on 8 of 10 shooting. He did have four turnovers and four fouls, but still. The Boston College game is also the first and only time this season that Funderburk has played at least 30 minutes. He did play the final six minutes of that game, by the way, and registered a turnover and an offensive rebound on the stat sheet. But NC State won, so there’s that. Shakeel Moore played the role of closer in that game anyway and plenty of veterans had more mistakes than Funderburk down the stretch. There are times when you watch Funderburk play where you’d swear he’s averaging 20 and 10. And then there are times you forget he’s on the court altogether. Whether that’s a product of him or the system or any and all of it, NC State needs good Funderburk in order to be as successful as it possibly can and turn this fighting spirit into actual results.
Steffon Mitchell. There were only four scholarship players listed as available for the Eagles were they to have played FSU earlier this week, and one of them was Mitchell. BC’s senior forward is having a weirder year than most. He had an up and down start to the season after a strong finish to 2020 but he seems to have steadied things as of late, scoring double figures in four of his last five games. Of course, he hasn’t played since January 16, but none of the Eagles have. And he had his highest scoring and rebounding totals of the season in the Eagles’ last game at Notre Dame, finishing with 16 and 13, plus tying a season-high with four blocks. Against NC State, he had a pretty good game too, finishing with his highest usage percentage of the year and scoring 12 points on 5 of 8 shooting to go with 12 rebounds, his second-most this season. BC is a bad rebounding team any way you slice it, but it’s not Mitchell’s doing as he is in the top 17 in ACC-only offensive and defensive rebounding percentage. BC rebounded a season-high 39.3% of its misses against NC State and Mitchell had seven of those 13 offensive boards. NC State is going to have to figure out a way to neutralize him as he’s going to be BC’s biggest healthy threat to hurt them.
NC State Win:
NC State Loss:
Boston College Win:
Boston College Loss:
NC State, 77-66. Hold on to your hats, everyone.
NORTH CAROLINA (11-6, 6-4 ACC) AT DUKE (7-6, 5-4 ACC)
Time: 6 p.m.
Matchup-wise, this game provides more intrigue than the lack of ranking next to either team’s name would suggest. Both teams are coming off a bad loss (UNC’s in terms of its play, Duke’s in terms of the opponent), and if both are, it cancels each other out, right? Neither team can now be more motivated than the other! Okay, that’s not really a metric. But we’ve got UNC’s solid to horrendous offense on the one hand (depending on the day) against Duke’s uncharacteristically bad defense. Then we’ve also got Duke’s pretty good offense against UNC’s deceptively solid defense. I say deceptively because it doesn’t always stick out, but that’s one area where the Tar Heels are worlds better than last season. Last year, the only conference-only category UNC ranked better than ninth in defensively was rebounds. They didn’t force turnovers, teams shot nearly 50% from two and over 34% from three against them in ACC play. Oh, and they got to the foul line at a good clip. This year, teams are shooting well against them still but not nearly as well from inside the arc and UNC is forcing way more turnovers and keeping opponents off the foul line. But of course, allowing 37.7% from the 3-point line is … less than ideal.
Duke’s offense has been good in ACC play but not necessarily by virtue of its 3-point shooting, which is weird to say about a Duke team. But Duke is 10th in ACC-only 3-point shooting (32.7%) and the reason its offense ranks fourth in ACC games is that it gets offensive rebounds at a good clip (33.4%, third in the league) and makes its free throws (74.1%). Plus Duke shoots 53.1% from inside the arc. Duke has had its turnover issues too, but not like North Carolina has. And that’s another area of intrigue as Duke is third in ACC-only turnover percentage defensively, behind only two teams that UNC has already lost to (Georgia Tech and Clemson). In fact, two of UNC’s four worst turnover percentage games offensively came against those two teams. Doing that against Duke would be a recipe for a loss.
And yes, you have to look at UNC’s turnovers, even if it’s hard. It’s not easy on the eyes when the Tar Heels get all turnover-y. All turnovers are not created equal, and what sets UNC’s apart is how silly and preventable many seem. I counted at least three turnovers UNC had against Clemson on passes to non-existent teammates. That’s not to say Clemson’s defense doesn’t deserve credit (it does), but it’s a problem if a third of your turnovers against an already-good defensive team are preventable. UNC had done such a good job during January in cutting back on turnovers that of the eight games where they’ve turned it over on 20% or fewer of their possessions, six have come in 2021. The lone outliers were the near-loss at Miami and, of course, Clemson nearly a month later. It doesn’t have to be a step back in that department that lasts forever, though, and it can’t be if UNC wants to make the NCAA Tournament.
It’s weird because it’s been easy all year to look at the stats and see what plagues UNC. It’s less easy with Duke, and maybe that’s because it’s more than just 1-2 issues that recur. And Duke generally shoots it so much better than UNC that it’s easier to watch in that regard, but its defense has been much less consistent. The common denominator is if Duke lets an opponent get above 100 in offensive efficiency, it’s like losing. Duke is 1-5 on the year when opponents break that mark and 6-1 when they don’t. Another tell is offensive rebounding: Duke is 7-1 when it rebounds 31% or more of its misses and 0-5 when it rebounds less than that. UNC is likely going to be more fired up on the boards than ever after its poor performance at Clemson, and Duke is going to have to fight hard. The good news for Duke is after its OR% varied wildly at the beginning of the year, they’ve retrieved 32.4% or more of their missed shots for three straight games.
I was going to write about how much the free-throw line and fouls will matter. And they will, because UNC’s bigs are going to test Duke’s less experienced and deep interior. But the weird thing is Duke is actually 4-0 with its four worst free-throw rates of the year. Duke lost the game where it got to the line the most (Michigan State) and while it has won three games in January with good free-throw rates, it probably hasn’t mattered as much as how much their opponents go to the line. Duke is 1-5 when opponents have a free-throw rate over 30. UNC has been over 30 eleven times this season in free-throw rate and is 8-3 in those games, with two of the losses coming to top-25 teams in Iowa and Texas. But you know who the third loss was to? Clemson. And do you know why? Because Carolina didn’t shoot well at all from the line, making just 52.4% and it honestly felt worse than that. So that’s something to watch too, especially because free throws were really a big part of the reason UNC let its lead slip away and lost to Duke in overtime last year. And the 52.4% from the line was UNC’s *best* performance in its last three games, which is gross. UNC had shot 70% or better from the line in the four games prior to that. It’s going to have to find that magic again.
But look. At the end of the day, it’s UNC-Duke. We could analyze it all we want and something crazy that makes no sense will likely happen instead.
NAMES TO KNOW
Armando Bacot. Since the calendar flipped to 2021, UNC is 6-2 after starting the season 5-4. And in 2021, UNC is 5-0 when Bacot plays at least 20 minutes and 1-2 when he does not with the one win coming by a single point against Notre Dame. Now, he missed that cut off by one minute at Clemson, and I’m not sure it would have made a difference with as frustrated as Bacot was throughout the game. He only attempted one shot, his fewest since the second game of his career. His one point was his lowest total since that game as well. But until Tuesday night, Bacot had been about the only thing that could be consistently relied upon during UNC’s tumultuous season. He has to play well and against Duke historically, he has. (With the obvious caveat that this isn’t really the same Duke team.) He averaged 12.5 points in two games against Duke last year to go with 9.5 rebounds (4.0 offensive boards) and 1.5 blocks. (He also shot 7 of 15 from the foul line, which is less than ideal, and picked up nine fouls.) But the real concern with playing a Duke team that looks like this probably comes defensively. Bacot spent portions of the Clemson game trying to guard stretch-4 Aamir Simms, who had his way with Bacot. So on one end, he’s getting double teamed and fronted and frustrated and on the other, more frustration. Matthew Hurt is going to be a different animal altogether and a big challenge for UNC’s bigs to defend, and even freshman big man Jalen Johnson can float out to the 3-point line and knock down jumpers. Bacot is going to have to be back to his assertive self and stay out of foul trouble.
Matthew Hurt. Duke’s sophomore forward is having an All-ACC caliber year, but it wasn’t a huge surprise after last year as he had plenty of double-digit scoring games. But what’s more easily forgotten perhaps is that as a freshman, his minutes were spottier than you’d think. He played double-digit minutes more often than he didn’t, getting double-digit minutes in 26 of 31 games. But two where he didn’t? You guessed it — both were against UNC. He played a total of 15 minutes last season against the Tar Heels in two games and for context, he played more than 15 minutes 25 of 26 games where played at least 10 minutes. He scored a total of zero points on 0 of 4 shooting. In the first meeting, the reason was obvious — he had four fouls in six minutes — but in the second, it was probably more because it became the Justin Robinson Game.
But last year feels meaningless now. Hurt, like Bacot, has been the most consistent thing about Duke all year long and has hit double digits in every game this year. He has also been efficient in every game — his worst ORtg is 110 and for perspective, UNC has two players with a season-long rating over that mark. He’s fouled out just once this year but flirted with it plenty of other times and UNC will have to make it a priority to get both he and Johnson into foul trouble. If there’s any sign of concern with his game lately, it’s only that he’s gone a bit cold from the 3-point line. He’s shooting 42% on the year and 42.6% in ACC play, but he’s just 3 of 14 in the last three games. Which frankly says a lot about how good he was prior to that. But if he heats up, look out. He’s a matchup nightmare for most teams and certainly is a big problem for UNC’s … bigs.
North Carolina Win:
North Carolina Loss:
Duke Win: Best win of the year? NCAA HOPES?!
Duke Loss: Eight losses, not much on the resume … oh dear.
Duke, 77-71. I don’t konw why. I’m guessing, just like most of you.