In the buildup to this season’s first rendition of the UNC-Duke men’s basketball game, it’s no secret that UNC has had its fair share of struggles this season. But if one consistent plus for fans can be picked out, it’s the continued improvement shown by the Tar Heels’ big men.
After all the woes of last season, many fans thought this year’s deep frontcourt would be commanded by one of the team’s brightest stars: the 2020 Preseason ACC Player of the Year and senior forward Garrison Brooks. But Brooks’ numbers have taken a notable dip from last season, averaging 10.4 points per game on just 45.1 percent shooting — the worst shooting clip of his career. His rebounding and assists numbers have also fallen, but he's shooting a career-best 64.9 percent from the charity stripe.
Instead, this year’s Tar Heel frontcourt has been a joint effort, spearheaded by burgeoning sophomore Armando Bacot. Though he struggled with injury and inconsistency last season, Bacot has shown a much-improved ability to score, leading the starters with both 11.9 points per game and 65 percent shooting — vast improvements from last season. His 60.8 percent shooting in ACC play leads the conference.
Though Bacot hasn’t sacrificed any of his defensive numbers from last season, he and Brooks have still had some help on that end in the form of a couple of gigantic five-star recruits: first-years Day’Ron Sharpe and Walker Kessler. Sharpe’s defensive acumen is apparent, leading the team in rebounds per game and coming joint-second in total blocks, behind only Brooks. Kessler, meanwhile, has struggled for minutes but shows decent scoring potential with a 51.9 percent field goal rate.
The most interesting thing about this UNC-Duke game, though, is that the Blue Devils don’t really have a post presence to match.
Duke’s only real center, first-year Mark Williams, has only registered more than eight in-game minutes four times and hasn’t looked amazing when on the court, averaging just 2.7 points and 2.7 rebounds per game. Granted, he played 13 minutes in Duke’s recent win over Georgia Tech, recording six points, six rebounds and a steal, but he also only scored two points and got three rebounds in 16 minutes in the team's next game, a loss to short-handed Miami.
Beyond that, Duke's options are sparse. 6-foot-9 first-year Jalen Johnson has a strong frame and a penchant for driving to the rim, but he’ll have to contend with the great wall of Tar Heel that awaits him. Sophomore forward Matthew Hurt is Johnson’s height and weighs 15 more pounds, but he typically prefers to score from mid-range and beyond, often playing more like a wing than a post player. There have been talks of playing first-year Henry Coleman III as an undersized post presence, but he’s never played more than eight minutes in a game and has seen mixed results when he’s playing.
All this being the case, most of Duke’s scoring will likely come from perimeter and mid-range buckets. If the Tar Heels can find a way to effectively shut down Hurt and Johnson while scoring consistent buckets in the paint on the other end, that might be the formula to running out of Cameron Indoor Stadium at game’s end with a win in hand.