There are nearly two years between the last time the Blue Devils defeated North Carolina twice in the same season.
Last year, Duke was dominated by its Tobacco Road rivals in both those games, making the Blue Devils fall short once again in college basketball’s greatest rivalry. The 2020-21 season was also the famed Roy Williams’ last year as coach. The Tar Heels, now led by Hubert Davis, has a 16-6 record ahead of their date with the Blue Devils. Duke, led by the iconic Mike Krzyzewski in his 42nd and final season at the helm, has an 18-3 slate of its own. The two last meeting dates, and as the era of Krzyzewski and Williams finally ends, will be the epic finish to the former’s career.
The first game is scheduled for a 6 p.m. tipoff at the Dean E. Smith Center Saturday. Though it may only be the first contest of this final chapter of Krzyzewski’s coaching in the rivalry, a lot can happen with this match, as it may set the tone for what’s to come in the final Duke-hosted battle at Cameron Indoor Stadium. In either game, many basketball stars are likely to be in the house, accordingly adding an extra level of pressure for many players. Additionally, the rivalry between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels is one of the most prolonged standings in sports. Both teams include incredibly passionate fans and stadiums are sure to be sold out.
With that, here are five things to watch out for as the Blue Devils trek to Chapel Hill for the showdown.
Going to handle Carolina
Duke is heading into this battle, ready to snag the win. Both groups are marching off a four-game win streak that shows neither is messing around. However, the Blue Devils thrive in atmospheres such as the Dean E. Smith Center, and the group only has two more guaranteed opportunities to defeat the Tar Heels under Krzyzewski’s helm. With a rivalry as intense as these two teams, the Blue Devils will do everything in their power to keep their streak, get back their top ranking in the AP Poll and handle North Carolina differently than they did last year.
“Like most players, but our guys, they love playing in front of big crowds, at home or away, it’s exciting,” head coach Mike Krzyzewski said at the pregame press conference. “They’ll have over 20,000 people there, and the atmosphere will be great. And I just think that the atmosphere in both places lends itself to having really top-notch performances by both teams. And that’s one of the reasons these games have always turned out to be really good games.”
Back on Keel Mode?
After facing an injury at Florida State Jan. 18, freshman guard Trevor Keels was forced to sit out the next three matches against Syracuse, Clemson and Louisville. Averaging 11.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists on a clip of 38.7% from the field across 18 games, the Clinton, Md., native is one of the best offensive players the Blue Devil roster offers. When needed, Keels can inflict “Keel Mode” and aid Duke through big points to garner the victory.
Though the Blue Devils were lucky enough with a deep bench to fill the void Keels’ absence left open, he is back now and dropped three points and four assists in his first game back against Notre Dame this week. With the pressure on against North Carolina now, Duke will need Keels’ to bring back that same level of play. The Blue Devil faithful want to see a win, and with the kind of performance that Keels may bring, that is definitely in the cards for the Durham team.
“I was actually surprised at the level of conditioning that he had because he didn’t play tired,” Krzyzewski said. “Even though I think the timing offensively with shooting is not there yet, he plays such good defense that it helps us, but now he’s moving along.”
Bring home the Bacot
If there’s one player that the Blue Devils will have to keep an eye out for, it’s power forward Armando Bacot. North Carolina’s most outstanding offensive threat is the junior starter, averaging 16.5 points and an intimidating 12.5 rebounds. With a 6-foot-10 and 240-pound frame, it’s clear that Bacot will be the perfect matchup for frontcourt starters Paolo Banchero and Mark Williams. Along with his 57.2% mark from the field, the Blue Devils must come into the Dean E. Smith Center ready to restrict Bacot from the paint—as the Richmond, Va., native will do anything and everything in his power to keep his numbers high.
Given his playing ability lately, which includes dropping double digits against all Blue Devil cross-opponents, including a 22-point outing against No. 5 Kentucky, Bacot is showing no signs of slowing down on the hardwood. For Duke to be successful against the Tar Heels, it will need to prevent a big performance from the forward.
“He’s put up great numbers, many games in a row. It’s not just like you have 19 and 22 [points in two games]; you [also] have 18 and 17. And so you just constant vigilance of trying to block him out,” Krzyzewski said. “I mean, hopefully, we can limit some of those numbers, but you’re not going to stop a guy like that; he’s too good. And he’s relentless, really on the boards.”
North Carolina is a strong team in making its shots at the charity stripe. So far this season, the Tar Heels have already drained 319-of-420 free throws for a 76% success mark. Though Duke does have an impressive 71.8% mark from the line, it also has only made 265-of-369 baskets, which is nearly 50 fewer attempts at the stripe. The Blue Devils cannot face a repeat of the Florida State contest, in which they allowed their opponents 25 shots at the charity stripe. The Tar Heels will try their best to use this in a backhanded attempt to edge on a possible Duke lead, so it is in the Blue Devils’ best interest to avoid a foul-heavy game.
“It’s really the lifeblood of a good defensive team to talk, and it gets you to really to play us as [that good of a team],” Krzyzewski said. “And so we’re constantly working, working on that where you help a teammate, and you try to play five as one that way.”
‘Eight days of really intense basketball’
By the time the clock ticks six on Saturday, it will have been five days since the Blue Devils last played a game. The squad will be no stranger to playing against opponents this week, with three accompanying games scheduled against Virginia, Clemson and Boston College.
Regardless of what happens against North Carolina, the Blue Devils will have a tough week ahead of them to prove whether this team has found its stride. The final Krzyzewski home game inches closer on the horizon, and with that in mind, Duke is going to need this stretch to show its current roster’s true prowess.
“With all the games were as this is a start of a four-game, eight-day [stride]. Three on the road for us. So it’s not just the Carolina game. It’s the start of eight days of really intense basketball,” Krzyzewski said.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Ana Young is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle’s 118th volume.