Ever since Duke obliterated then-No. 2 Kentucky in Indianapolis on opening night, the hype has been unprecedented.
With Zion Williamson a walking highlight reel and classmates R.J. Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones lighting up the scoreboard, the Blue Devils have been must-see TV all season.
LeBron James, Jay-Z and Floyd Mayweather are just a few of the names that have sat courtside to get an in-person look at Duke during the last month, and one can only imagine the atmosphere when the young Blue Devils take to their biggest stage yet.
No. 1 Duke will host eighth-ranked North Carolina Wednesday at 9 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium in the 249th iteration of the Tobacco Road rivalry. The Blue Devils have not been fazed by college basketball’s elite programs this season, winning four of five battles against top-10 teams—including a series sweep of Virginia—and have shown a level of poise and maturity unheard of from young teams.
“We have a lot of attention. Zion and R.J. are the key guys in handling that. Zion came in here having a lot of attention. I think he’s even made comments about what his parents used to say to him in high school, like ‘if you’re going to be really good, you’re going to have a lot of attention,’ so he brought in a million or so followers,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Duke beat N.C. State Saturday. “Every game that he played in high school or AAU was a show, so he’s been accustomed to dealing with that.
“They’ve handled it really well, and they have good families. Their families aren’t caught up with all that. I have good kids.”
While the Blue Devils (23-2, 11-1 in the ACC) have struggled out of the gate on numerous occasions this season, Duke has continued to rise up against its toughest competition. The Blue Devils were locked in from the opening tip in each of their four top-10 wins—getting out to respective first-half advantages of 21, 17, seven and 14 points against Kentucky, Auburn, Virginia at home and Virginia on the road.
You can bet that Duke will be mentally prepared for Wednesday’s battle, as it will likely be the lone chance for its starting freshman foursome to take down the Tar Heels (20-5, 10-2) in front of the Cameron Crazies. The Blue Devils’ rookies have accounted for nearly 77 percent of the team’s scoring this season, led by Barrett’s 22.7 and Williamson’s 22.4 points per game.
And the nation’s top two recruits are especially eager for the opportunity to take part in arguably the most storied rivalry in sports.
“[I’m] pretty pumped,” Barrett said. “It’s a game as a kid I was watching all the time. Just to be a part of it is going to be a lot of fun and we’re going to go in there and play hard and try to win.”
“That’s been on I think everyone’s minds since they committed to Duke,” Williamson added. “It’s the biggest rivalry in college basketball.”
In order to emerge the victors, the Blue Devils will have to quiet an explosive North Carolina offense, which is second in the nation at 87.5 points per contest. The Tar Heels thrive by stretching the floor with lethal perimeter shooting and creating space for either dribble penetration by point guard Coby White or inside looks for versatile big man Luke Maye.
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Barrett and Reddish will be tasked with shutting down 6-foot-8 sharpshooter Cameron Johnson, who is second among all major-conference players at a 47.9 percent 3-point clip. Jones will attempt to further his reputation as one of the nation’s top defenders against White, and Williamson may have the task of cementing Duke’s interior size advantage against Maye—who is averaging 14.5 points and 9.6 rebounds per game—while trying to avoid falling for Maye’s attempts to bait the freshman into silly fouls.
Despite the prestige of the rivalry and significance of the matchup, Jones knows that in the end, it’s just another game after sitting in Cameron for last year’s 74-64 Blue Devil victory.
“I remember the atmosphere in the gym. It was crazy, really packed,” Jones said. “It’ll be a big-time game for sure, but when the ball is tipped, at the end of the day you’re just playing basketball again.”
This is part of our extensive preview coverage for this year's first meeting between Duke and North Carolina. Check out more of our content here, including top games of this season and historically for the Blue Devils, breakdowns of the matchups at every position Wednesday night and our writers' predictions for the game.