It seems like a distant memory now, but a little more than two weeks ago, Duke was a heavy favorite to beat North Carolina at home. Since then, the two programs have traveled on far different trajectories.
The Tar Heels capitalized on Zion Williamson's knee injury on the first possession of the game to stun the Blue Devils 88-72 in Durham in the first matchup and haven't lost since, while Duke has struggled without Williamson. Now, No. 3 North Carolina will be out to prove its win was no fluke when it hosts No. 4 Duke Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill.
Blue Devil head coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Duke's unexpectedly close 71-70 win against Wake Forest Tuesday that he would be surprised if Williamson takes the floor against the Tar Heels, and on Friday, he announced that the team would make an official decision after Saturday morning's shootaround.
“He had his first really good workout, but not contact," Krzyzewski said of Williamson during Friday afternoon's pregame press conference. "He’ll have no contact today. I would say he’s doubtful for tomorrow, but we’ll see tomorrow. The way he’s going, he won’t be doubtful for the [ACC] tournament.”
Virginia could lock up the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament before the Blue Devils and North Carolina even tip off Saturday with a win earlier in the afternoon at home against Louisville, but the game will still carry plenty of postseason implications.
Although Duke (26-4, 14-3 in the ACC) likely coughed up its chance at the ACC regular-season title with a loss at Virginia Tech last week, it would still be in the driver's seat for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament with a win Saturday.
But another loss and a defeat in the ACC tournament could knock the Blue Devils off the top line behind the Tar Heels (25-5, 15-2), which would likely hurt Duke's geographic placement as well. Only two top seeds will get to play in Columbia, S.C.—the other will be shipped further away.
"We have a great resume. I don’t know where it will all end up, but we’ve played probably the toughest schedule. In conference, we’ve played the toughest schedule—we’ve played Virginia and Carolina twice," Krzyzewski said when he was asked about seeding Tuesday. "If Zion doesn’t play Saturday, we would have had our team together for only nine of our games in conference, and we have 14 conference wins. The kids have done a hell of a job."
Williamson is expected to be the Blue Devils' only possible absence due to injury Saturday despite multiple scares against the Demon Deacons. Point guard Tre Jones had to go to the locker room for a few minutes during the second half after a knee-to-knee collision with a Wake Forest defender but returned to the game. Big man Marques Bolden missed most of the second half after getting hit in the hip, but Krzyzewski said he could have played toward the end of the game and didn't because the Demon Deacons had five perimeter players on the court.
Duke will need all its healthy limbs on deck to avoid getting swept by North Carolina in the regular season for the first time since 2009. Some Tar Heels felt disrespected after their first win against the Blue Devils that all the national coverage revolved around Williamson's shoe explosion, and this time, they hope the talk will be about another victory.
Duke struggled to contain the Tar Heels' two stars, Luke Maye and Cameron Johnson, who combined for 56 points, and did it without Johnson—a 47.9 percent shooter from long distance—even making a 3-pointer. Sans Williamson, the Blue Devils will have to find another answer for Maye, who got wherever he wanted on the floor and finished with ease over his primary defender Jack White.
On the offensive end, Duke got 60 points from freshmen R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish, but only 12 from the rest of the team.
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"If [Zion] plays, we’ll be happy. If he doesn’t, we've got to still win without him," Barrett said. "We’re prepared no matter what. With or without, we’re going to try to fight."