The 2018-19 college basketball season has been the year of Zion Williamson and the Duke Blue Devils’ phenomenal core of freshmen. But they haven’t been unbeatable, which some believed would be the case prior to the year. And on Wednesday night, the biggest rivalry in college hoops takes center stage when the North Carolina Tar Heels head to Cameron Indoor Stadium.
It’s a matchup of top-10 teams, as the Tar Heels come in as the No. 8 team in the country while Duke boasts the No. 1 overall ranking. The Blue Devils opened as heavy favorites against UNC, and one big topic has been how Roy Williams’ squad will slow down Williamson, the 6-foot-7, 285-pound star.
Zion is averaging 22.5 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.3 steals, and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting 68.3 percent. There’s no question that finding a way to hold him in check has been a tall task for every team, but the question becomes who could guard the Duke star in this matchup?
Let’s take a look at the UNC roster and starting lineup, along with who could hold down the fort against the likely No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft.
North Carolina Tar Heels Roster & Starting Lineup vs. Duke
*Notates expected starter
F: Luke Maye*, Sterling Manley (injured), Brandon Huffman, Walker Miller
F: Garrison Brooks*, Nassir Little, Shea Rush, Ryan McAdoo
G: Kenny Williams*, Andrew Platek, Leaky Black (injured)
G: Cameron Johnson*, Seventh Woods, K.J. Smith
G: Coby White*, Brandon Robinson, Caleb Ellis
The Tar Heels will be without both Sterling Manley and Leaky Black for this game, as Jonathan M. Alexander of The News & Observer revealed. Manley has been out for nearly two months due to a sore knee while Black injured his ankle against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on January 29.
Prior to the injury, Manley was averaging 11.7 minutes per game with 4.4 points and 4.3 rebounds so the starters will continue to be relied upon heavily. Black was also receiving decent minutes before hurting his ankle, playing 11 minutes on average and posting 2.8 points, 2.0 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game.
UNC is led by Cameron Johnson, Coby White and Luke Maye, each of which averages over 14.5 points per game. Maye has marks of 14.5 points and 9.6 rebounds while Johnson has tallied 15.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. White has been a strong facilitator and scorer, posting averages of 15.7 points and 4.3 assists.
How UNC Could Defend Zion Williamson
Garrison Brooks is an interesting potential option, as he stands 6-foot-9 and 229 pounds, and may have the best chance of the “bigs” to slow down Williamson. Even still, Zion has roughly 55 pounds on Brooks, but it’d likely be a better matchup than 6-foot-9, 210-pound Cameron Johnson.
Alexander made an interesting point in a story in The News & Observer that Nassir Little faced Williamson twice (McDonald’s All-American game, Jordan Brand Classic). Little went on to win the MVP in both games and stands 6-foot-6 while weighing 220 pounds. There’s really no perfect answer for how the Tar Heels can slow down Williamson, so it’ll be interesting to monitor the approach Williams takes.
Realistically, the best bet is to expect double teams and various avenues to avoid a single player having to guard Williamson one-on-one. Whether that works will be a big question, largely due to the fact that Duke has so many other talented options, including RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, Tre Jones, and Marques Bolden.