With the Blue Devils set to face off against North Carolina for the first time this season, three of our men's basketball beat writers broke down some of the biggest questions surrounding the two teams this season and gave their predictions.

How concerning was Saturday’s loss to St. John’s for this Duke team’s future?

Mitchell Gladstone: At the end of the day, the most concerning thing about Saturday’s loss is the fact that the Blue Devils just don’t seem to be able to get up for matchups with teams below their level. Duke is 5-1 against teams ranked in the RPI Top 50, yet it is just 3-3 against teams ranked between 51 and 100. I don’t know whether it’s young guys not taking opponents seriously or just some strange coincidence, but if the Blue Devils wind up as a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, they’re going to face a 15 and then either a 7 or 10 before the Sweet 16—and those teams will undoubtedly give Duke all they can handle.

Hank Tucker: Saturday’s loss doesn’t really affect my thoughts on Duke’s chances of beating any of the national title contenders in March, but the result will hurt the Blue Devils’ case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Duke didn’t care nearly as much as St. John’s did, and it paid the price, but I doubt the Blue Devils will have as much trouble getting energized for games like the matchup with North Carolina Thursday night or any postseason contests in the ACC and NCAA tournaments. Duke is still a title contender, but it might make its road tougher by playing itself out of a high seed.

Ben Leonard: Duke’s loss to St. John’s meant absolutely nothing, but it was very revealing. The Blue Devils were not ready to play, perhaps looking ahead to this week’s game against the Tar Heels. Their tendency to play down to their opponents’ level has been concerning. We all saw it against Portland State, Southern and Boston College. Some might talk about the ramifications in terms of seeding in March, but seeding doesn’t matter for this team. Such a young team needs time to grow together—it could be a No. 7 seed but figure it all out in the ACC tournament and make a run to the championship. But they’ll have to learn to take every game seriously and play defense first. 

What’s the most interesting individual matchup you’ll be watching Thursday night?

MG: The one player who has been a bit of a conundrum for Duke is Trevon Duval. Although the freshman is certainly talented and a crucial piece of the Blue Devil offense as both a penetrator and a distributor, his intensity on the defensive end has been inconsistent. And outside of a masterful 28-point effort in last year’s regular-season finale, Tar Heel point guard Joel Berry has been held to 15 points or fewer in six matchups with Duke. Assuming that Duval is tasked with guarding Berry, the winner of that matchup could very likely propel his team to victory.

HT: As Mitchell points out, Duval and Berry will likely be physically matched up against each other as opposing point guards, but I’m more interested in the intangible matchup between captains Berry and Grayson Allen in the backcourt. Both have had their moments of glory in the rivalry—Allen with his clutch shooting to seal the Blue Devils’ victory in Durham last year and Berry with his 28 points to return the favor in Chapel Hill—but both players have been cold from the outside for most of their senior seasons. Whichever veteran has a breakout game and can score more like they did as sophomores and juniors could swing Thursday’s matchup.

BL: I’m intrigued by the matchup down low. North Carolina only has one truly big post player, but leads the nation in rebounds—just ahead of Duke. Marvin Bagley III has struggled at times on defense against bigger post players like Wake Forest’s Doral Moore, and the Tar Heels’ lone towering big could take advantage. At 6-foot-10, Sterling Manley could come off the bench and be lightning in a bottle against Bagley. Manley doesn't play a whole lot—he averages just under 12 minutes per game, but has been very effective while on the floor, averaging nearly six points and five rebounds per game. The spotlight might be on Luke Maye, but Manley could be Duke’s Achilles’ heel. 

With the Tar Heels skidding into the matchup close to .500 in the ACC, are you surprised about how much they’ve struggled at home this year?

MG: I wouldn’t say I’m all that surprised by North Carolina’s struggles, only because they lost some really critical pieces after winning a national title—and that hurts. But on top of that, Tar Heel fans never seem to show up when their team needs them most. Sure, they’ll make noise in the final eight minutes if their team is trying to make a comeback, but in losses to Wofford and N.C. State, the North Carolina faithful were silent as their team struggled to take out an inferior opponent. I don’t doubt that it’ll be a raucous environment Thursday night in Chapel Hill, but if Duke can jump out in front early, the Blue Devils have a chance to take the crowd out of the game.

HT: I’ll disagree with my colleagues here and say I thought the Tar Heels would be the Blue Devils’ primary challenger in the ACC and am extremely surprised at their struggles. Berry, Maye and Theo Pinson were all key players on a national championship team, and I keep expecting them to play like it. Sure, they lost a lot of production from last year with Justin Jackson, Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley all departing, but they lost a lot two years ago as well when All-Americans Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson graduated. North Carolina responded then by winning the 2017 national championship, and I expected its returning veterans to put it right back in the mix this season. I was wrong.

BL: I’m not surprised at all—the Dean Dome has been described to have a “wine-and cheese” crowd at times for a reason. Especially with a team that lost a bunch of big players, North Carolina can’t have been expected to be perfect this year. They certainly aren’t coming into Thursday’s game in their best shape, having lost three of their last four, but Duke-Carolina is different. It will certainly be loud Thursday—this will bring a new sort of energy that probably wasn’t there in the Tar Heels’ home losses to N.C. State and Wofford. The national stage levels the playing field. The Blue Devils will have to start off the game hot—something they haven’t been too keen on—in order to neutralize the nerves and the crowd. 

What’s your prediction for the final score and who will be the player of the game?

MG: Duke needs its defensive identity back, and it finds it against the Tar Heels thanks to one of its freshman big men—but not Marvin Bagley III. Wendell Carter Jr. racks up the blocks and boards, forcing North Carolina to find offense from outside the lane, and another Carter double-double with at least five offensive rebounds sends Duke to its 14th victory against the Tar Heels since 2010. Blue Devils win, 83-72.

HT: I just keep imagining a guard like Pinson or Cameron Johnson trying to guard Bagley or Carter in the Tar Heels’ small-ball lineup and don’t see it going well for North Carolina. Sure, that means Duke will have to guard the Tar Heels in some unfamiliar situations too, but North Carolina just isn’t quite consistent enough from long distance to make the Blue Devils pay the price, in all likelihood. Duke has had a lot of success in the Dean Dome this decade, and I see that continuing. Bagley and Carter will be a little too much for the Tar Heels, leading the Blue Devils to an 87-79 win.

BL: Duke is better than North Carolina, but that doesn’t mean it will win in the Dean Dome. The Blue Devils will romp the Tar Heels in March, but they just haven’t been good enough in true road games to convince me that they’ll be able to come away with a win Thursday. The only difficult road game they won was against Miami—and they needed a late comeback, while they have imploded to fall to Boston College, N.C. State and St. John’s. On paper, Duke wins the matchup at every position—and especially in the post. Wendell Carter Jr. and Marvin Bagley III have the size and athleticism to manhandle the Tar Heels, but I don’t see the Blue Devils putting everything together consistently enough to win. Behind Luke Maye, North Carolina wins the battle on the glass and the game, 88-81.