Forgive Vernon Carey Jr. for not being the generational talent that is Zion Williamson.
A year ago, the most recent No. 1 overall NBA draft pick starred for the Blue Devils, shattering records and imaginations by averaging 22.6 points and 8.9 rebounds on 68 percent shooting. Williamson was a phenom, a one-man wrecking ball and one of the most dominant players of recent memory in college basketball.
As the next hyped Blue Devil big man — the No. 6 player in his class, according to 247Sports, and the third-ranked center — first-year Carey has had the unenviable task of following that up. All he's done is make himself a player of the year candidate by averaging 17.8 points, nine rebounds and helping No. 7 Duke to a 19-3 record.
He'll be priority No. 1 for the Tar Heels against Duke on Saturday, but that's not enough. They'll have to hold him in check if they want an upset win.
The first thing to know is that Carey is a beast on the glass, best evidenced by a 31-point, 12-rebound performance — in just 22 minutes, it's worth noting — against California in late November.
Carey has also stepped out to take the occasional long ball this season, having made five of 12 shots from 3-point range. He's logged 13 games without a triple attempt, so he's not a consistent threat from deep — but if he gets the urge to take and make a couple from distance, UNC's night could be over early.
All that is to say that North Carolina's big men, junior Garrison Brooks and first-year Armando Bacot, will have their hands full, to put it lightly.
And with limited depth to back them up, it'll be of the utmost importance for Brooks, especially — UNC's best two-way player — to defend without fouling. Though Carey is shooting just 62.3 percent from the free throw line, it's more important that UNC doesn't find itself without its junior forward for extended stretches, in which case Carey will have his way.
If there's any team who can limit Carey's impact on the glass, it's North Carolina, which has posted a plus-9.5 rebounding margin this season. The more difficult part, predictably, will be keeping him off the charity stripe.
Which brings to mind a possible attack plan for the Tar Heels, what with their limited three-point abilities and deflated offensive numbers this season: Pound the ball inside and get Carey himself in foul trouble (he was DQ'd against Colorado State by collecting five fouls after just 15 minutes of action). Wear the Blue Devils out with physicality, keep the game close throughout and see what you can do late.
One more thing in UNC's favor: Carey has logged just 25 assists this season to 46 turnovers. He doesn't see the court exceptionally well for a player his size, and stats would suggest that he doesn't respond well to double-teams thrown his way.
Thus, another possible solution for the Tar Heels: send multiple players at Carey. From there, again, you play the odds: hoping the Blue Devils don't hurt you too much elsewhere, hoping the game ends up close late, and hoping you cobble together enough points to topple your rival and bolster your NCAA Tournament hopes.
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