NC State's Markell Johnson talks about his play and Coach Keatts in the Wolfpack's victory over the North Carolina Tar Heels at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2018. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com
NC State's Markell Johnson talks about his play and Coach Keatts in the Wolfpack's victory over the North Carolina Tar Heels at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill on Saturday, Jan. 28, 2018. Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

Luke DeCock

They may not get what they want, but here’s what Duke, UNC, NC State need to do to finish strong

By Luke DeCock

ldecock@newsobserver.com

January 31, 2018 03:57 PM

With a month and change to go in the ACC season, it’s pretty clear at this point that the three Triangle teams aren’t going to get what they want, since Virginia has essentially locked up the regular-season title and the No. 1 seed in the tournament. But can they get what they need to finish strong?

For each team, there’s a big missing piece that could be the difference between long-term success and failure. Everyone’s off until Saturday, so there’s a few days to think about it.

Duke: Trevon Duval’s continued development

The Blue Devils’ 18-0 run to put away Notre Dame on Monday came with Duval on the bench after picking up his fourth foul. That came after his ill-advised pass upcourt with a minute to play against Virginia that was intercepted by the Cavaliers and set up Ty Jerome’s game-sealing 3-pointer.

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Duke guard Trevon Duval (1) steals the ball from Notre Dame guard TJ Gibbs (10) in the second half. Duke beat Notre Dame 88-66 at Cameron Indoor Stadium In Durham on Monday, Jan. 29, 2018
Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

But Monday was also Duval’s best offensive game in two weeks (12 points, four assists), and despite that big run, Duke really took control of the game not long before that when Notre Dame had cut the lead to six and Duval hit a big 3-pointer to answer. The reaction on the bench was as if Duval hit a game-winner.

Duval looked better in early in the season, and after Grayson Allen essentially took over point-guard duties in Duke’s win at Wake Forest, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said Duval’s struggles were not out of the ordinary for a freshman at this point in the season. The Pittsburgh-Wake Forest-Virginia sequence may have marked the low point of Duval’s season, or so the Blue Devils hope after Monday.

North Carolina: Come back, Tony Bradley

Tony Bradley’s early departure for the NBA has hurt the Tar Heels about as much as would have been expected before the season, which is to say: dramatically. Luke Maye is an offensive dynamo but not a true post player and neither Garrison Brooks nor Sterling Manley has proven ready for prime time. The lack of a rim defender has had a ripple effect throughout the entire lineup defensively.

N.C. State took advantage of North Carolina’s small lineup to isolate Markell Johnson on Maye with devastating effect and the tendency of the Tar Heels’ wings to overhelp because there’s not a shot-blocker in the middle has contributed to the volume of opponents’ 3-point shooting. There’s a lot of research that indicates defensive teams have very little impact on opponents’ 3-point percentage, but can restrict the number of attempts by denying open looks. The Tar Heels are doing a poor job of that.

The lack of an inside presence has hurt the Tar Heels offensively but it’s really damaging on defense. For North Carolina to turn around a season headed sideways – and Bradley, who was smart to take the money and run, isn’t walking through that door – the Tar Heels need Brooks or Manley to become a reliable post option at the defensive end, with any offense a bonus. This team has tried to play small, and had success at times, but it has never been a long-term recipe for success for Roy Williams.

N.C. State: Get Abdul-Malik Abu off a milk carton

Perhaps the most amazing thing about N.C. State’s five ACC wins – OK, second-most, after Al Freeman’s out-of-body 7-for-7 performance from outside in Chapel Hill – is that the Wolfpack has done it without any real contributions from Abdul-Malik Abu, who went into the season as a contender for all-ACC honors. He hasn’t played more than 20 minutes in any ACC game and has only one double-digit scoring game. His numbers – 5.7 points, 3.8 minutes – are worse than his freshman year, let alone the past two.

N.C. State's Abdul-Malik Abu (0) blocks the shot by Wake Forest's Mitchell Wilbekin (10) during the first half of N.C. State's game against Wake Forest at PNC Arena on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018.
Ethan Hyman ehyman@newsobserver.com

It could be spillover from the knee injury that delayed the start of Abu’s season, even if Abu seemed like something close to fully healthy in December. Foul trouble has been a huge issue, but that’s often a symptom of a larger problem. Abu is a smart, thoughtful, cheerful, compassionate kid and that has its pros in life and cons on the basketball court. The biggest hole in his game has always been the absence of a mean streak, which is why Mark Gottfried referred to Abu, not pejoratively, as a “sweetheart kid.” This has been a challenging season for him, and now’s the time to fight back.

If Abu isn’t healthy, Keatts needs to shut him down for a little while so he can get there. (This is clearly a team headed for some kind of postseason, and it’s going to need Abu once it gets there.) If Abu is healthy, Keatts needs to find a way to get to him the way he has gotten through to Omer Yurtseven, because Abu has shown he’s capable of so much more than this, even if the Wolfpack keeps winning big games without him.

Sports columnist Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock