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No fear for Williams, Krzyzewski heading into Thursday

Duke St Johns Basketball-4

Duke's Grayson Allen (3) reacts during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against St. John's at Madison Square Garden in New York, Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018. St. John's defeated No. 4 Duke 81-77. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

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By SAMUEL EVERS
Sports Writer

Monday, February 5, 2018

Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski both agree: The sky is not falling.

But there were some new gashes for the two bluebloods this past week.

North Carolina lost three straight games for the first time since 2014. They rebounded to beat Pittsburgh at home on Saturday, while, earlier that day, then-No. 4 Duke was leaving Madison Square Garden with a four-point loss to a St. John’s team with a record below. 500.

Each with newer and lower rankings this week (No. 21 for UNC, No. 9 for Duke) with a Thursday matchup at the Dean Dome coming, each of these longtime coaches have themselves positioned far from the panic button.

“They’re not putting us in the grave right yet,” Williams said with a laugh on Monday. “For us, in our situation, we lost three in a row, two on the road. I think a lot of teams are going to lose in those spots. We’ve been such a great road team over the past 14 years that it sticks out a little more this year.”

The Tarheels won by virtue of a blowout on Saturday. Duke lost because of the same two issues that have plagued them in bad moments this season: ball security and defense. They turned the ball over 18 times and allowed the Johnnies to score nearly 10 more points than their season average.

“I don’t think it’s really complicated. Doesn’t mean it’s easy to do, but we don’t have to dig deep to find out what we need to work on,” Krzyzewski said.

“In February every year we’re working through issues. There are very few teams not working through issues on how to get better. That’s just part of it.”

For those that are at a peak during this time of the year, Krzyzewski said, giving his 1991 championship team as an example, there is still the issue of staying that way.

This current collection, prolific at times and laden with highly-regarded players as it is, still has to consider itself a growing team. But, of course, that doesn’t exactly mean they’re a sinking program.

“We really improved a lot during January. We’ve won 19 games. It’s not like we’re bad, we’re good. But we were horrible on Saturday,” Krzyzewski said. “We have to keep working to becoming better defensively. We also have to keep working on valuing the ball more. Those are the two areas that we have to get better at. If we're not then we’re just going to be a good team. If we’re going to be a really good team we’re going to have to improve on those areas.”

The game itself, the first matchup of the longtime rivalry this season, will present a different challenge than usual for Williams and North Carolina. The Tarheels, Williams noted, have been more accustomed in recent history to worrying about the 3-point shot and the players who make them.

The new-look Blue Devils this year, with Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr. rebounding and scoring inside, cause much more traffic and attention in the paint. Bagley III is scoring 21.4 points per game while grabbing 11.6 rebounds, and Carter Jr. is scoring 14.4 a game with 9.6 rebounds.

“It’s been quite a while since I felt like their greatest strength was closer to the basket opposed to their ability to shoot the 3-point shot,” Williams said.

A combined 2-5 in their last seven games played, the matchup still carries its weight in name recognition alone.

“I think it’s still Duke-North Carolina,” Williams said. “Both teams are still alright.”

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