Austin Rivers’ buzzer-beating 3-pointer. Jabari Parker's 30-point outburst. Tyus Jones’ late-game heroics. In the last four years, those are the players who have etched their names into Tobacco Road rivalry lore.
Who will be next?
After a two-week hiatus from the top 25, No. 20 Duke has jumped back into the rankings on the back of two straight wins against ranked opponents. The Blue Devils now face their toughest test of the season, though, and will make the familiar eight-mile trek to Chapel Hill Wednesday to clash with No. 5 North Carolina at 9 p.m. at the Dean E. Smith Center in the latest installment of college basketball’s premier rivalry.
Although the Tar Heels boast a 133-107 advantage through the first 240 contests, Duke has had its way of late. The Blue Devils swept both games last season and have now claimed victory in seven of the last nine without dropping two straight to their rivals in more than a decade.
“The thing that makes this rivalry is ultimate respect, respect at the highest levels. I’ve seen that for 36 years, and I learned about it even before that,” Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Our players and their players know that they’re very fortunate to be in the programs that they’re in and just like the coaches, we realize that…. We also understand the history and the excellence of each program, and the manner in which it was achieved.”
Just a few weeks ago, it looked as if Duke’s season was teetering on the brink, but the Blue Devils (19-6, 8-4 in the ACC) have rebounded and enter Wednesday riding a four-game winning streak. Sophomore Grayson Allen has powered the resurgence, leading Duke in scoring in three of those four wins—with the lone exception being Saturday against No. 7 Virginia, when he banked home a runner at the buzzer to send the Cavaliers home with a loss.
Allen logged just 15 total minutes against North Carolina last season, but along with freshmen Brandon Ingram and Luke Kennard has combined to give the Blue Devils a dangerous perimeter attack that drives the nation’s second-best offense, as measured by basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive efficiency rankings.
“Duke is a team that has five guys that can beat you, and yes, Grayson Allen and Brandon are the leading scorers, but Luke Kennard has got 30 in one game this year and Marshall [Plumlee] has shot 75 to 80 percent in three or four games this year,” North Carolina head coach Roy Williams said on a teleconference Monday. “Matt Jones can shoot it from the 3-point line. You’ve got to guard all five guys. You’ve got to be able to guard the penetrate and dribble because Grayson, probably more so than anybody in college basketball, is able to get the ball to the basket with a combination of agility and leaping ability and strength and get to the free-throw line.”
North Carolina (21-4, 10-2) ranks fifth in Pomeroy's metric, but in contrast to the Blue Devils will feature a veteran lineup very similar to the one that took the floor last year. The Tar Heels boast depth that Duke sorely lacks, with all five starters scoring in double-figures and 6-foot-9 forward Isaiah Hicks not far behind with 9.6 points per game.
The undisputed leader for North Carolina is senior point guard Marcus Paige. Paige burst onto the national scene as a sophomore to average 17.5 points per game and earn All-American status, and though he has been hampered by injuries this year, the Marion, Iowa, native is still the top perimeter threat for the Tar Heels and the player Williams will look to should the game come down to the wire.
“[Paige is] a great player and considered one of the best players in the ACC, and rightfully so. He’s been playing at a high level for a couple of seasons now. He’s a good player and he can really shoot the ball,” Allen said. “As a team, we have to know where he is at all times. We know he can be matched up on different guys with the ball being pushed in transition and switching, so we all have to be aware and keep an eye out for him.”
North Carolina’s biggest strength is its frontcourt, which happens to be the Blue Devils’ primary weakness. Senior Brice Johnson has taken a huge leap forward to average team-highs with 16.4 points and 10.0 rebounds per game, and Duke has already struggled with other quality power forwards this year in the likes of Utah's Jakob Poeltl, Notre Dame's Zach Auguste, Syracuse's Tyler Roberson and Wake Forest's Devin Thomas.
Junior Kennedy Meeks complements Johnson down low as the other 6-foot-10 Tar Heel starter. At a bruising 260 pounds, Meeks will combine with Johnson to attack the glass against center Marshall Plumlee, the Blue Devils’ lone true post threat and defender. In the absence of injured captain Amile Jefferson, Duke struggled to rebound early in ACC play, but has adjusted in recent weeks, thanks in large part to Ingram’s continued development.
With a rangy 6-foot-9 frame and a skill-set that rivals that of most shooting guards, Ingram poses a matchup problem for nearly every team. After some early-season struggles, the Kinston, N.C., native has lived up to his billing as the nation’s No. 3 recruit, posting 18 straight games with at least 13 points and ranking fifth in the ACC in scoring during conference play.
The Tar Heels, though, have a player with talents like Ingram's. At 6-foot-8 and 200 pounds, sophomore Justin Jackson scores 12.1 points per game and shoots nearly 50 percent from the floor, with a similar blend of quickness and versatility. The combination of force and finesse those two display is hard to find, and how they battle on the wings could well determine which side takes the first round in this year’s Tobacco Road bout.
“Two of the things that are impossible to teach and coach against unless you have it are length and quickness,” Krzyzewski said. “[Ingram and Jackson] have both of those—they have length and quickness. They have really good instincts for the game…. I think both of those kids are long, quick and they’re strong—internally and externally.”
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