The Post’s Zach Braziller breaks down Saturday night’s national semifinal between No. 2 Duke and No. 8 North Carolina at the Caesars Superdome:
White Plains native RJ Davis has elevated his play this month, scoring at a high level when the opportunity has arisen, while understanding the most important part of his job is creating for his teammates. His 2.2-1 assist-to-turnover ratio in this North Carolina run can’t be overstated in its importance. Duke’s Jeremy Roach has come up big in the clutch in recent wins, especially in the Sweet 16 victory over Texas Tech, but his nine turnovers in the past two games are a cause for concern.
edge: North Carolina
Both players can get hot and go on a run on their own. Both players can shoot their respective teams out of a game, too. Caleb Love of North Carolina and AJ Griffin of Duke are uber-talented with NBA futures, but they are also maddeningly inconsistent, as streaky as they can be dynamic. Love is the more well-rounded player at this point with an extra year of college experience while Griffin is the most potent shooter.
edge: North Carolina
Wendell Moore Jr. is an outlier on Duke, a junior who has waited for his turn and methodically improved each season. He could be this team’s Quinn Cook: a veteran leader guiding his young team to a national championship. His counterpart, senior Leaky Black, won’t hurt Duke on the offensive end, but the North Carolina wing’s defensive versatility will be essential to a Tar Heels victory.
Brady Manek’s emergence has spearheaded North Carolina’s two-month tear of 16 wins in 19 games, the Oklahoma transfer averaging 17.3 points and 6.3 rebounds in that torrid stretch. He’s shooting an absurd 61.3 percent from 3-point range in the Dance, making the Tar Heels incredibly tough to defend. He will, however, be facing a player just as comfortable on the perimeter, Paolo Banchero, Duke’s projected top-three pick in the 2022 NBA Draft. The 6-foot-10 Banchero doesn’t move like a man his size, and his athleticism will give Manek fits.
This is the most fascinating one-on-one matchup of the weekend. It’s power against power. North Carolina’s Armando Bacot against Duke’s Mark Williams, two dominant post players essential to their respective teams’ success. Williams, the better NBA prospect of the two, has been an absolute monster of late, averaging 14.5 points, 8.7 rebounds and 4.0 blocks in the tournament. Bacot is coming off a 20-point, 22-rebound masterpiece and has 10 double-doubles in his last 11 games. Don’t take your eyes off these two.
Between the two rivals, there is one potential difference-maker who doesn’t start: high-upside Duke freshman guard Trevor Keels. Former Marquette center Theo John offers important toughness and insurance if Williams lands in foul trouble. In North Carolina’s last two wins, its bench scored a grand total of four points.
This is Mike Krzyzewski’s 13th Final Four. He’s after his sixth national championship. He’s won 101 NCAA Tournament games and 1,202 games overall across 47 seasons. If experience matters, and it certainly has to be somewhat significant at this stage of the year, this is a no-contest, even if Hubert Davis has shined in his first year as a head coach, leading North Carolina back to the Final Four after a poor first half to the season.
All the pressure is on Duke. It is expected to win. North Carolina wasn’t even supposed to be here and can play loose. But the young Blue Devils have shown they can handle the aforementioned pressure, digging deep to get by Michigan State and Texas Tech earlier in the tournament. For 35 minutes, it’s anybody’s game, the showdown more than living up to the hype. But in winning time, Banchero reminds everyone why he is such a highly-touted prospect, sending Coach K to the final night of the season in his final year on the sideline.
Duke 85, North Carolina 77