For one of the most storied rivalries in college athletics, this year's first matchup between Duke and North Carolina lacks some of the excitement that usually precedes it.
Although ESPN's College Gameday will be in full swing in Chapel Hill to stoke some flames on Tobacco Road, a tumultuous year for the Tar Heels dulls the hype for what is historically a down-to-the-wire, evenly matched battle.
Yet despite one of the worst records in recent school history, North Carolina certainly has the talent and the potential to give the Blue Devils a brutal fight on the road.
No. 7 Duke will travel to Chapel Hill to take on the Tar Heels Saturday at 6 p.m. in the Dean E. Smith Center. Though on paper North Carolina may appear overmatched by the Blue Devils' depth and consistency, freshman phenom Cole Anthony and junior big man Garrison Brooks form a deadly inside-outside combination that has the ability to stay competitive against any ACC threat, especially at home.
"It's a celebration of excellence," head coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "You have two of the top-five programs in the history of the game and two of the elite programs in all of sports going against each other. The level of talent on the court over the years that I have been here has been staggering. It produces great games."
For better or worse for North Carolina (10-12, 3-8 in the ACC), its entire offensive scheme revolves around Anthony when he steps onto the hardwood.
A 6-foot-3 guard with the athleticism and raw talent expected of any prized former five-star, Anthony has proven to be able to score at all levels and poses a constant threat of being able to go off at a moment's notice. The New York native averages 19.5 points, 3.5 assists and 6.4 rebounds per game. He draws opposing defenders to the perimeter with his capable shooting stroke and utilizes crafty handles to then attack the rim.
However, while Anthony's play has single-handedly driven the Tar Heels to victory in the past, it hasn't come without a hefty toll on North Carolina's consistency and efficiency.
"[Anthony] is a top-10 talent in the collegiate ranks," Krzyzewski said. "[North Carolina] has been hurt with a lack of continuity. They have a really good team, but when you take out that important piece for a significant amount of time that's going to hurt anybody. Getting him back, there was a period of readjustment, and it's just a matter of how long that will be. With this level of talent, he'll do that quicker than most. It gives them a player who is an ultimate competitor."
Anthony averages 17.1 attempts to just 6.0 makes per game, making up the rest of his points on the free-throw line. With a habit of grinding down the shot clock just to attempt an iso-drive, the young point guard has an ugly tendency to stall out the Tar Heels' offense while trying to create his own shot. To make matters worse, Anthony averages 3.5 turnovers per game. With Duke 19-3, 9-2) bringing one of the most disruptive defensive cores in the nation in Tre Jones, Jordan Goldwire and Wendell Moore, Anthony will need to put his freshman mistakes behind him to give North Carolina a shot at victory.
"[Jones] is a great on-ball defender," Krzyzewski said. "His physical condition is of utmost concern where we don't wear him out.... Having Wendell back helps because he's a great ball handler and having Goldwire helps lessen that load."
The other piece of the puzzle the Tar Heels will need is Brooks, who makes up half of the talented North Carolina frontcourt.
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While Anthony was out for much of the start to the conference season, Brooks stepped up massively to carry a flailing Tar Heel offense. Averaging 14.9 points per game, the LaFayette, Ala., native has torn up interior defenses with all manners of dunks and floaters. When combined with freshman Armando Bacot, Brooks helps create one of the best rebounding frontcourts in the nation.
"The biggest thing is how we attack the boards," Krzyzewski said. "[The Tar Heels] have two bigs that are two of the best rebounders in the country, so the main thing is we have five guys on the defensive boards making sure they never get extra shots. That's the biggest thing [Brooks and Bacot] do."
Although Saturday's contest may look to be one of the more lopsided Tobacco Road match-ups in recent memory, make no mistake—the Tar Heels certainly have the pieces to not only shock Duke on the road, but to also earn a desperately needed signature win.