Some things never change. So, when the top-ranked Blue Devils and No. 8 North Carolina face off in a top-10 battle for the 46th time in their rivalry's history—32 more than the next closest duo—all eyes will turn to Durham to see the greatest rivalry in college sports.
On paper, yes, it’s just another regular season game. But, with Duke vying for its first conference regular season championship since 2010, the fact that the Blue Devils have beaten the Tar Heels at least twice in all of their championship seasons, and serious bragging rights on the line, you’d be a fool to ever think this is just a regular season game.
Of course, Duke will look to avenge its 74-69 loss in last year’s ACC Semifinal matchup, where North Carolina was able to hold off the Blue Devils late. But, it’s a new crop of youngsters taking the floor at Cameron Indoor Stadium on Wednesday night, including one megastar that the Tar Heels will need to place all their focus on.
Which Tar Heel is (Zi)On Williamson?
Like many teams this season, finding someone to matchup on Duke’s star freshman is almost impossible. But for a North Carolina team that usually implores a big man alongside its go-to option Luke Maye, the Tar Heels may have a matchup nightmare on their hands.
Nassir Little had an debateable, viral highlight in the McDonald’s All-American game defending Williamson, and seems like a good fit to take on the potential top pick. But, Little is coming off an ankle injury against Virginia, and although he should play, he may be hampered by it. This would also move Maye over to defend a Duke guard like R.J. Barrett or Cam Reddish, which could be equally bad for the Tar Heels. Another big question mark for the visitors is if their senior can show up on the offensive end.
He Maye show up
The last marquee outing that North Carolina played in was a gut-wrenching loss to Virginia at home, and it’s an understatement to say that Maye had an off night. The Huntersville, N.C., native scored just four points on 2-for-10 shooting. The last time Maye was in Cameron he got off to a nice start, but faltered down the stretch, going 3-for-10 from the field in the second half.
With the 6-foot-8 forward finally set as the Tar Heels’ top dog this season, it's been his disappearances in some games have led to his team's losses. In North Carolina’s five defeats, Maye is averaging just 10.2 points per game, compared to over 15.5 in wins. His team-leading 9.6 rebounds per game could be key, in a contest that could be decided on the glass.
Re-Bound to be a battle
Wednesday’s matchup will feature the two leaders in the NCAA in rebounds per game, with the Tar Heels in the top spot and Duke right behind. The Blue Devils have been dominant this season fighting for multiple opportunities, and the only game where they failed to win the second-chance points battle was against Auburn in Maui. Williamson and Barrett have combined for nine double-doubles thus far in ACC play thanks to their rebounding, including the latter’s triple double against N.C. State last Saturday.
If Duke decides at any point to make North Carolina pick up the pace and go small, Jack White would be the perfect addition with his outstanding abilities as a rebounder, no matter that his shot has gone awry. The junior averages 5.3 boards per game—more than starting center Marques Bolden—and will be one of the Blue Devils’ key, but few substitutes off the bench.
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How much can you Bench?
One of the biggest differences between the two Hall of Fame coaches Mike Krzyzewski and Roy Williams have had has been how deep their benches go. Williams has 10 players currently averaging double-digit minutes per game on the season compared to Duke’s eight, which includes Alex O’Connell, a player who has barely seen the floor in the last three games. The Blue Devils have not been hurt by a short bench and tired legs in previous matchups of the rivalry, but it’s something to keep an eye on.
With such few substitutes, there’s also more pressure for those not starting for Duke to come in and make an impact, whether that’s rebounding from White, active hands on defense by Javin DeLaurier, or tough on-ball defense from Jordan Goldwire, who has come on of late. The Blue Devils will definitely need some contributions from those three if they want to live up to their billing for opening as an 11-point favorite.
You’re my favorite, but that much?
Duke opened in Las Vegas as as huge favorites to take home the first leg of the rivalry, surprising for a matchup that hasn’t been decided by more than 10 points in five years. According to Josh Goodson, the Blue Devils have taken the last seven meetings at Cameron when they are favored, but are just 3-7 against the spread in their last 10 games as at least a nine-point favorite.
For a North Carolina team that’s been ranked in the Top 25 all year, it’s hard to believe this one won’t come down to the wire if both teams play up to standards. The sports world will be watching, anxiously waiting to see the next classic between two schools just eight miles apart.