The North Carolina men’s basketball team will be in New Orleans for one of the biggest games in the history of the program on Saturday.
For the first time ever, UNC will face Duke in the NCAA Tournament in North Carolina's 21st Final Four appearance.
"I am surprised that it hasn't happened before,” head coach Hubert Davis said. “I think it's funny that the last two times we've been at the Final Four, I've been at the Final Four."
The Tar Heels have already faced Duke twice this year, with each team winning once. North Carolina's victory in early March ruined Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s last game at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
New Orleans is familiar territory when it comes to North Carolina and the Final Four, as both the 1982 and 1993 national championships were won at the Caesars Superdome.
Here is what the Tar Heels need to do if they want to end Krzyzewski’s farewell tour once and for all.
Stop Duke’s shooters
Limiting potential No. 1 overall pick Paolo Banchero’s points has been a difficult task for teams all season. However, it’s the players surrounding him that North Carolina needs to focus on.
In UNC and Duke’s first matchup, AJ Griffin torched the Tar Heel defense for 27 points, making 11 of his 17 shots and leading the Blue Devils to a 20-point blowout.
Griffin was a non-factor in the rivals' second matchup, only attempting five shots, thanks to the heavy defense of senior forward Leaky Black. The Concord native is the Tar Heels' best defender, but he can’t guard all five players on the court at the same time.
If North Carolina hopes to win, they’ll need all five players on the court to lock in on defense and slow down not only Banchero and Griffin, but also the guard combo of Trevor Keels and Jeremy Roach and forward Wendell Moore Jr., as any of Duke’s five-star players can catch fire at any time.
"I'd say they're growing, they're learning,” UNC graduate forward Brady Manek said of the Blue Devils. “We're all in the Final Four for a reason."
Control the glass on both sides
Part of North Carolina’s success in the tournament so far has been dominating teams in the rebounding category.
In the first four games of the tournament, North Carolina had a total of 39 more rebounds than its opponents combined.
Duke hasn’t been as effective as the Tar Heels in crashing the glass, but if the regular season matchups are any indication, don’t discount the Blue Devils. Duke grabbed 13 more total rebounds than UNC across the two games, including dominating the rebounding battle 40-to-24 in its win at the Dean E. Smith Center in February.
Duke’s success has been in part due to 7-footer Mark Williams, who is averaging 7.5 rebounds this season, including 2.6 offensive rebounds per game. Banchero can get up and get the ball as well, as he produced a double-double in Duke’s first-round matchup against Cal State Fullerton.
If UNC can control the duo on the offensive boards, they’ll limit Duke's chances to gain momentum with second-chance buckets.
Make your shots
It’s a simple concept, but if UNC is going to win, all five starters need to put the ball in the basket.
In the UCLA game, up until sophomore guard Caleb Love changed his shoes, he was having a dismal shooting performance — going 1-for-8. But, after the shoe change, Love found his rhythm, going 10 for 16 and helping the Tar Heels advance to the Elite Eight.
UNC can’t risk having a dismal shooting performance in the first half, however, as it could easily fall into a significant deficit early on.
But so far, the Tar Heels have had a consistent flow of good shooting performances with four different players having led the team in scoring in the NCAA Tournament. In all four games, the leading scorer has scored 20 or more points.
However, against the Blue Devils, one player having a good shooting night will not be enough to propel the Tar Heels to a win. It must be a complete team effort.
If UNC comes away from Saturday with a win, the team will have the chance to compete for a third national championship title in New Orleans.
"North Carolina is the biggest stage there is," sophomore guard RJ Davis said. "The bright lights, the big moments, this is what I came for."
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