It’s very difficult to identify any positives from Carolina’s blowout loss to Miami in terms of lessons learned and experienced gained. The starting lineup yet again struggled badly at the beginning of the game, putting the whole team in a hole right from the outset and setting the tone for all that followed.
The less said about Saturday the better. What is clear, however, is that Miami is at the moment by a considerable distance the strongest team in the ACC. A Hurricane team that shoots the ball as well from the perimeter and is as dominant defensively in the paint as they were Saturday could cuts down all the nets there are to cut.
The likelihood that Miami will be ranked lower than Duke when the polls come out this week just shows occasional absurdity of those rankings. Without Ryan Kelly, Duke is just not in the top rack of teams nationally.
They still deserve to be handy favorites against North Carolina playing at home, however. But there are a couple of reasons to think (or at least hope) Carolina might be significantly more competitive in Cameron than they were in Miami.
First, while the evidence on the effectiveness of Carolina’s starting lineup has been in for some time, ironically that group might do reasonably well against guard-heavy Duke. When Quinn Cook, Seth Curry, and Tyler Thornton are all in the game together, a Tar Heel lineup of Marcus Paige, Dexter Strickland, and Reggie Bullock might be a reasonable perimeter counter. (Thornton will likely come off the bench for Rasheed Sulaimon.) Containing Curry is obviously an urgent priority for the Tar Heels in this game and it makes sense for Dexter Strickland to have the first crack at that assignment.
On the other end of the court, Bullock is probably going to prove a tough cover for Duke, and one has to like James Michael McAdoo’s chances of being effective offensively against Amile Jefferson or Josh Hairston. Consequently, if Carolina keeps it poise there may well be some decent offensive opportunities even with the starting group.
If Strickland can keep a lid on Curry early and keep the game close, later in the contest Carolina might be able to severely test the Cook-Curry-Thornton three guard lineup when Bullock and P.J. Hairston are in at the same time.
Second, Duke doesn’t have the raw talent of Miami, and without Kelly, it doesn’t have the experience either. If you look at the players Duke will put out and the players Carolina will put out Wednesday night, there shouldn’t be 26 points of difference between the different shades of blue, or anything close to that.
But Duke does provide Carolina with one devilish matchup problem, that of Plumlee. Rarely do players improve as much from their junior to senior seasons as Plumlee has, and his combination of mobility and strength (plus improved foul shooting) presents a real challenge.
Desmond Hubert is a capable low post defender, but it would be surprising if he can cope well with high screen-and-rolls featuring Plumlee. Joel James is out of the question, except possibly to give fouls. So is Brice Johnson, who lacks the strength to keep Plumlee away from the basket. McAdoo might do a credible job late on if the game is close, but Roy Williams can’t afford to risk McAdoo getting into foul trouble by assigning him Plumlee the whole game.
That leaves Jackson Simmons as perhaps the most likely Tar Heel to at least force Plumlee to work hard for his points. If Carolina is to have a good night Wednesday, Simmons will almost certainly have quite a bit to do with it.
There is no question that Carolina faces an uphill task and that Saturday’s dreadful showing won’t have helped the team’s confidence. But that close Boston College-Duke game shows that there isn’t an insurmountable talent gap in play here.
As always, the psychological factor in going into Cameron is crucial. Teams that play best in that venue are those that attack and play with no fear from the get go. Senior Strickland has a chance to make his mark on this season by providing needed leadership on the defensive end; if he does that and Bullock and McAdoo convert early opportunities, that would send a message to both teams that this is going to be a 40-minute contest worthy of a great rivalry.
But if there aren’t immediate signs that is happening, Roy Williams needs to intervene early using the bench and timeouts. Carolina cannot afford to fall behind 12-0, 10-0, or even 8-0 in this one.
Looking at the season as a whole, Carolina also cannot afford to take another heavy loss in this game. There are no moral victories (especially against Duke), but strong performances against quality opponents can build confidence, even when offered in a losing cause. To follow the blowout at Miami with a similar showing against Duke would send a message that this Carolina team cannot compete with college basketball’s best this season, and would cast a pall over the next few weeks.
No matter what five is on the floor or for how long Wednesday night, this Carolina team just can’t let that happen. Pride in the uniform and pride in their own abilities need to lead this group of players to have the same reaction the vast majority of past Tar Heel teams have had when stepping into Cameron: play their hearts out and play to win.