Here's a look at the individual matchups that could determine Thursday night's game between North Carolina and Duke:
McAdoo vs. Parker
James Michael McAdoo is coming off his worst game of the season. He fouled out scoreless having played just 13 minutes in Monday's win over Florida State. If the Kentucky game was any indication, McAdoo will be up for facing Jabari Parker. McAdoo rendered Kentucky’s Julius Randle, another highly-touted freshman, a non-factor offensively during the Heels' win over the Wildcats.
Parker will be more of a challenge because he’s more comfortable stepping out on the perimeter than Randle. McAdoo may want Parker to drift out, however, as Parker has scored more than 20 points in three of Duke’s last four games while making more of a concerted effort to stay in the paint.
“He’s taking it upon himself to get the basket, he’s posting up a lot more. That’s where he’s most effective," Duke’s Rodney Hood said of Parker. “Not saying he can’t hit a jump shot, [but in the paint] that’s where he can punish people.”
Sulaimon on Paige
Rasheed Sulaimon has started three of the last four games at point and could be matched up with Marcus Paige, the Heels’ leading scorer. At 6-foot-4, Sulaimon brings a little more length than Tyler Thornton or Quinn Cook and could make scoring a little more difficult for Paige. Florida State tried the same strategy by using the 6-foot-5 Aaron Thomas on Paige. It was effective for a half until the Heels started running Paige off more screens and he lit it up with 14 points in a nine-minute span in the second half. That went right along with Paige’s recent trend of producing big in the second half after a slow start.
“I don’t let my performance in one half dictate how I feel the rest of the game. I’m usually pretty even keeled throughout the game,” Paige said. “I’m not going to let a poor shooting performance or a couple of turnovers in the first half affect my mindset for the second half because I know my teammates are counting on me to produce.”
Tokoto on Hood
J.P. Tokoto is accustomed to drawing the opponent's best wing player, having just chased around Pittsburgh’s Lamar Patterson for the better part of a game. Hood may be the best player Tokoto will have faced this season. Hood isn’t one-dimensional. He’s shooting 45 percent from 3-point range, yet he can put the ball on the floor and create shots on his own. Tokoto said his defensive strategy doesn't change regardless of the opponent.
“I just approach every game with the mentality that I’m going to beat him up defensively,” Tokoto said. “Not so much foul, but just kind of get into him, get the ball out of his hands, keep the ball out of his hands -- whoever it is.”
Jefferson on Meeks
Kennedy Meeks played arguably his second-best game of the season against Florida State (trumped only by his Louisville performance of 13 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists). He scored a career-high 23 points on 11 of 12 shooting from the field, and most of those baskets were point-blank putbacks.
Duke's Amile Jefferson, meanwhile, has been outsized all season. He’s listed as 6-foot-9, 210 pounds. Meeks is listed at 6-foot-9, 290 pounds.
“For me it’s about fighting the other guy because a lot of times they’re bigger, stronger, height-wise,” Jefferson said. “For me it’s about using my quickness to beat them up and down the floor length, on offense and defense. Really it’s just about fighting the entire game, making sure they feel me every possession.”
McDonald & Cook vs. Slumps
Carolina’s Leslie McDonald and Duke’s Cook are fighting similar slumps. McDonald has made just two of his last 15 from 3-point range and is 8 of 31 from the field since scoring a season-high 20 points against NC State on Feb. 1.
“He’s a phenomenal shooter from outside. We need him, and he knows that,” McAdoo said. “We’re not going to put too much pressure on him because as you’ve seen, we are still capable. But hopefully [against Duke] his shot is falling. When he is on, he’s just another great player, an added dimension.”
Cook’s recent performance against Maryland highlighted his inconsistencies. It was the only game this season that he didn’t record an assist, and he also had three turnovers. He played a season-low 14 minutes in the game.
If either player can emerge in this game, it could be a huge boost for his respective team.
Carolina’s Brice Johnson just posted his second double-double of the season with 14 points and 11 rebounds against Florida State. Johnson could see extended minutes if the Heels are hurt by Duke pulling its five out to the perimeter on pick-and-rolls. Johnson is better suited to defend it than Meeks or Joel James.
Duke’s Andre Dawkins shoots like every shot is going in and was a big factor off the bench when he scored a season-high 20 in the Blue Devils' win at Pittsburgh in late January.