Photo: Luke Maye
Can anybody beat Duke? On paper, the answers appears to be no.
We already know that Kentucky, the only school that can keep pace with Duke’s ability to recruit NBA lottery picks, isn’t a likely candidate. The Blue Devils’ NBA combine roster beat the Wildcats’ NBA combine roster by 34 points to start the season, 118-84. And it wasn’t that close.
In the end, Duke’s three lottery picks, Cam Reddish, Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett, along with freshman point guard Tre Jones (the one who may be most valuable despite his draft ranking for glue-man presence, may be overwhelm all challengers in March.
It’s going to take a team with veterans leading the roster to beat the Blue Devils. In the ACC, that reduces the suspects to North Carolina and Virginia.
North Carolina (10-3), ranked No. 15, opens ACC play Saturday at unranked Pitt (10-3), while No. 4 Virginia (12-0) plays host to No. 9 Florida State (12-1).
North Carolina mixes three senior veterans with Luke Maye, Kenny Williams and Cameron Johnson; a sophomore, Garrison Brooks; and two elite freshmen, Nassir Little and Coby White.
"I think we can really score,” said Maye, a forward after Wednesday’s final non-conference game, a win over Harvard. “We didn't really shoot well, which falls some on myself. We just need to continue to get better.
“I think Nassir had a really good game today, and he showed a lot of great energy off the bench. Without Sterling (Manley), he is going to have to be a key player for us moving forward, but hopefully Sterling can get back and continue moving forward in the right direction.”
Oh, Florida State, No. 10 Virginia Tech or No. 18 N.C. State might pull off a regular-season upset. Sometimes the ups-and-downs of conference play can favor the team with more energy and a crowd behind them despite lesser talent. Hiccups happen.
“It is tougher,” said Johnson, a 6-8 senior that is a graduate student. “It is a grind and we’ve got to be ready to be resilient. We got to be able to adjust and we got to be able to play hard and we just got to be able to win.”
Slips in the regular-season or the ACC Tournament can be forgiven, but not too many times.
“We are fighting for the regular season, and we are fighting for a tournament position,” said Williams, a 6-4 senior guard. “You can't really take a night off, but that's a good thing. They are going to make you play and you are going to play hard every night. That's when basketball is fun, when you're playing hard and you're doing things that you do well.”
What matters is what happens once the season resets after the conference tournaments. It’s in games of consequence is when veterans at schools rich with tradition can balance out Duke’s enormous talent.
North Carolina has done it, winning the NCAA title in 2017 after a runner-up finish in 2016 with veteran players drafted (or not) behind Duke’s one-and-done freshmen.
Johnson leads that the Tar Heels at 16.4 points a game, Maye 14.2, White 13.8, Little 10.8 and Williams 8.5 with 4.5 assists.
Virginia has done it on the way to ACC regular-season titles, but the Cavaliers have been falling short in NCAA play. Don’t count out Virginia’s veterans, though.
They used to say the same thing about Villanova falling short in NCAA play but not anymore. The Wildcats have won two of the last three NCAA crowns with veteran rosters.
Virginia is led by 6-2 junior Kyle Guy, 15.4 points; 6-7 redshirt sophomore De’Andre Hunter, 14.5 and 6-5 junior Ty Jerome, 14.2. Jerome also averages 4.2 assists. The Cavs have balance and interchangeable parts off the bench.
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