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Five Takeaways From an Exhilarating Duke-UNC/UCLA-Oregon Doubleheader

If that didn’t get you excited for March Madness, nothing will

(AP Images)
(AP Images)

A rousing college basketball doubleheader ended with a pair of home wins Thursday, as Duke pulled away from North Carolina late, 86–78, and UCLA completed a stirring comeback against Oregon, escaping 82–79 in a battle of two top-10 teams. All four teams fancy themselves Final Four contenders; here are five takeaways about their chances after a night of up-and-down basketball and plenty of offensive highlights.

Grayson Allen Couldn’t Miss, but Jayson Tatum Was Duke’s Biggest Star

Allen tallied 25 points and seven 3-pointers, and the junior guard’s recent play — 21.5 points per game and 49 percent 3-point shooting in the past four games — is a much-needed development for Duke’s postseason hopes. After spending most of the season mired in controversy and a shooting slump — 32 percent from 3 before this stretch — Allen’s resurgence, paired with the flamethrowing Luke Kennard, gives Duke the most potent scoring backcourt in the country.

But it was the wing stuffing the box score next to those guards who had the most impressive outing Thursday night. In the first half against UNC, Jayson Tatum didn’t score and looked little like a top-five NBA draft pick; in the second, he took the game over. Tatum amassed 19 second-half points, and more importantly for a Duke team packed with scoring punch, he led all players in rebounds (nine), assists (five, a career high), blocks (two), and free throw attempts (eight).

Mike Krzyzewski’s roster once again features tremendous star power with little supplementary depth, particularly in the frontcourt. The Blue Devils don’t have any other player who can mimic Tatum’s diverse production, so while Allen’s revived shooting stroke and Kennard’s breakout year will make the guards focal points of Duke’s upcoming tournament run, Tatum’s continued growth could dictate just how far Duke advances.

Duke Is Heating Up

It’s not just Allen, though his performance behind the line is the most notable in Duke’s four-game winning streak. Five different Blue Devils canned a 3 against UNC as the team shot 13-for-27 from beyond the arc, marking the third time in four games that they’ve reached double-digit 3-pointers. That’s the same number they managed in the first 20 games of the season.

Tatum has made multiple 3s in consecutive games for the first time in his career, Kennard made two more to stay hot — now an even 50 percent from range in the new year — and guards Matt Jones and Frank Jackson are each good for a transition make or two every game. For a team with this much shooting talent, Duke has struggled to an odd extent for most of the season; heading into Thursday night’s game, it ranked just 12th in the ACC in 3-point percentage. But the game against the Tar Heels showed how powerful the long-range weapon can be for the Blue Devils: They beat UNC by nine in the 3-point column and eight on the scoreboard.

With Harry Giles still just a bit player and Amile Jefferson more of a defensive stalwart than an offensive force, this year’s Blue Devils squad is more perimeter-oriented than Krzyzewski is used to coaching. (After so many years, it turns out that running out of Plumlees is a definitive drawback.) Compensating for that imbalance with improved shooting is a must for Duke over the next two months.

North Carolina Is in for a Rough Few Weeks

The Tar Heels were a body short against Duke, with senior forward Isaiah Hicks, who ranks third on the team in minutes and points per game and second in rebounds per game, missing the contest due to a strained hamstring suffered in practice. Luke Maye stepped into the starting lineup and played a solid game, but he was overmatched guarding Tatum in the second half, and all three of Tatum, Harry Giles, and Marques Bolden snatched his lunch money with blocks on Maye in the first half alone.

UNC especially missed Hicks on the boards. The Tar Heels are the best in the nation at gaining second chances, with an offensive rebounding percentage of 43 entering the game, but managed just seven offensive rebounds on Thursday. Duke also outrebounded UNC by one board overall, and while a team’s rebounding margin naturally follows its scoring margin, it’s still noteworthy that the Tar Heels’ record is 0–4 when they lose the rebounding battle. Hicks, who has averaged 5.6 total rebounds (two offensive) this year, could have helped with the deficit against Duke.

On a macro level, then, Roy Williams shouldn’t be too concerned with the loss. The Tar Heels can score against any team in the country, and they’re a veteran-laden team with the combination of size and steady point guard play that typically fares well in March. Until the tournament, though, UNC might struggle, as the visit to Cameron Indoor marked the beginning of a brutal scheduling stretch.

The Tar Heels have now played seven road games against power-conference teams, yielding four losses and three single-digit wins, and their remaining schedule includes three road games and home bouts against Virginia, Louisville, and Duke. UNC is tied with Florida State atop the ACC, but five additional teams are within two games of the Tar Heels. Their chances of repeating as regular-season conference champs could soon slip away.

UCLA Stayed Balanced on Offense

UCLA trailed by as many as 19 before closing the gap and edging out Oregon in the final minutes. Overcoming any lead of that magnitude involves a mix of collapse and comeback, and the Ducks and Bruins played their respective parts. On back-to-back possessions early in the second half, Oregon’s Dillon Brooks made a 3-pointer and Tyler Dorsey hit a jumper, pushing the Ducks’ lead to 15; for the remainder of the game, Oregon made just four of 22 shots from the field.

The Bruins, meanwhile, chipped away at the deficit with their characteristically balanced offensive approach. Six different players average double figures in points this season, and their equal-opportunity offense rolled on against the Ducks. All seven Bruins who played at least five minutes took seven or more shots, with each of them scoring between eight and 15 points. For comparison, Brooks and Dorsey combined for nearly half of Oregon’s total shots (34 of 69).

UCLA’s ability to experiment with multiple points of attack and ride the hot hand is the hallmark of most up-tempo offenses, and part of what allows the team to score at such a prolific rate. Bryce Alford made three 3-pointers in the first half to keep the team in the game, then didn’t score at all in the second. After Oregon went up 15 on Brooks’s and Dorsey’s jumpers, Thomas Welsh added four baskets to help cut the lead to three, then didn’t take another shot as Lonzo Ball took over. And Ball transformed a rather unimpressive statistical showing — as The Ringer’s Danny Chau remarked, it’s probably the first time since elementary school he managed only one assist — into a SportsCenter "Top 10" appearance in the final 80 seconds.

That list doesn’t even include sixth man Aaron Holiday, who tied Ball for the team lead with 15 points, or the other steady scorers who populate the Bruins’ rotation. It’s rare that a college team can run a play for anybody on the court and expect a bucket, but UCLA ranks second nationally in scoring for a reason.

Teams That Run Together, Keep Viewers Together

People watch, say, a Tony Bennett Virginia team in the same way they add a documentary to their Netflix queues — it’s important and principled, sure, but they’d be lying if they said they wouldn’t rather watch superheroes punch each other and run fast breaks for two hours. Thursday was a night for popcorn.

By KenPom’s adjusted tempo ratings, UCLA entered the game playing at the fastest pace of any power-conference team, and UNC slotted in at sixth. Oregon and Duke place lower on the list, but neither team was shy about matching its opponent step for fast-break step in the doubleheader. It was four hours of fun.

In both Durham and Westwood, the ball was flying around the court, and the games were allowed to flow without interference from overeager officials. Duke and UNC combined for just five free throws in the entire first half, for instance, and the Tar Heels’ 114.7 points per 100 possessions was the worst offensive rating of any of the four teams. There is a time and place for stout defense, and any matchup between Virginia and a ranked, high-octane opponent remains a fascinating tactical battle. But on this Thursday night, awash in the chants of Cameron Crazies and Bill Walton’s rambling storytelling, the doubleheader couldn’t have been more compelling. Baskets came in bunches; a star shone in prime time. March is just three weeks away.