The stakes have never been higher for No. 2-seed Duke and No. 8-seed North Carolina, with the two sides facing off Saturday in the Final Four in New Orleans for the first time in NCAA tournament history. With a spot in the national championship game on the line, here's who our beats predict will come out on top.
Piazza: North Carolina 87-84
I understand that I may come back to campus with egg on my dorm window for this pick, but I think the Tar Heels are going to pull off one of the better villain stories in sports history. Duke has gotten torched from deep by Brady Manek twice and this game has a Caleb Love signature performance written all over it. That’s without even mentioning North Carolina's best player, Armando Bacot, who is a walking 20-point double-double. The Blue Devils have plenty star power of their own and will make this arguably the greatest game in the rivalry, but the Tar Heels will play spoiler on Coach K’s final season once again.
Rego: Duke 85-81
Can you say instant classic? The first time these programs meet in the NCAA tournament will produce a thriller, particularly thanks to the frontcourt matchup. Banchero and Mark Williams pitted against Manek and Bacot figures to define this one, as all four are peaking at just the right time. Ultimately, though, I think Duke barely escapes thanks to a few crucial stops late—similar to the Blue Devils’ wins against Michigan State and Texas Tech. The Tar Heels possess a potent offensive arsenal and love to push the pace, but the improvements of Jeremy Roach, Trevor Keels and Wendell Moore Jr. in defending ball screens will make the difference in the end. Duke survives yet again in what will go down as one of the greatest college basketball games of all time.
Jackson: North Carolina 86-82
If you had a chance to catch me on Headline News Friday morning, you’ll have seen that I picked Duke to win this game. Forget that. After further consideration, I have come to the conclusion that this is the end of the road for the Blue Devils. There has been no hotter team in the country than North Carolina. The Tar Heels have defied all expectations and have been one of the most dominant offenses, with plenty of good defensive pieces, in the field of 64. North Carolina excels when Manek is on the floor. He was a thorn in Duke’s side in both of the programs’ previous matchups and I just don’t see Duke making enough adjustments to stop him. Not to mention, RJ Davis and Love have been playing some of their best basketball this March, and Bacot has always been a dominant force. I think the Blue Devils will be caught off guard after a feel-good win against Arkansas and they won’t be able to catch back up.
Kolin: Duke 84-82
I said it in my prop bets blog and I’ll say it again: We’re due for a nail-biter, and I mean buzzer-beater or overtime kind of nail-biter. This NCAA tournament hasn’t seen a game-ending buzzer-beater yet, and I wouldn’t be shocked at all if it happens Saturday, on the grandest of stages, in the biggest rivalry in the sport. In terms of who comes out on top in that kind of game, I’m going to be honest—your guess is as good as mine. Both these teams made the Final Four for a reason; they’re both really good, and really different from the last two times they met this season. Duke is obviously more talented on paper, but North Carolina has been playing like the best team in the country. In the end, though, I’m rolling with the Blue Devils. As much as the team has said this game isn’t about revenge, I think the revenge factor will undoubtedly play a role, even if it’s close. I think Duke wills its way to a win in this one.
Morgenstern: Duke 76-72
It is time for Duke to show its growth in a big way. If the young team can shoot its way to an early lead, North Carolina won’t be able to recover. No one doubts that the Blue Devils are the more talented team at full strength. With shooters like AJ Griffin, playmakers like Moore and Roach, and dominant big men in Banchero and Williams, it is hard to see any matchup the Tar Heels can exploit. Love led the Tar Heels out of a halftime deficit against UCLA, but it won’t be so easy against a Blue Devil squad fond of runs of its own. This Final Four matchup won’t be fun so much as it is nerve-racking, but I expect Duke to stave off North Carolina just long enough to make history.
Richie: Duke 83-74
After the dust from the apocalypse settles and the state of North Carolina is ripped in two, I predict it will be the Blue Devils moving on to the championship game. Duke has been the more complete, consistent team through March, which is not necessarily a knock against the Tar Heels and more so a testament to Duke. Each Blue Devil has come into their own in the role they need to. Roach gets hot in the clutch. Moore distributes. Griffin makes his threes. Williams dominates inside. Banchero plays like a star. Most importantly, the defense, or lack thereof, that killed them in that fateful regular-season closer, looks retooled and dependable. On the other side of the court, while the Tar Heels have had some exceptional individual performances, they haven’t fully settled in—Love’s 30 points against UCLA versus five against Baylor or Manek’s defense, for example. Thus, I don’t see the Tar Heels ending the more well-rounded Blue Devils’ season.
Hurewitz: Duke 81-75
Round one: Duke. Round two: Carolina. Though the two regular-season games were not close by the rivalry’s standards, the dramatic story of it is all there. Coach K’s final home game was spoiled by the Tar Heels only for the two to meet—rather miraculously—in the Final Four. Having played North Carolina twice this year, the Blue Devils are not short of film and experience matching up against the Tar Heels. The teams should have the scouting reports figured out, so it’s just up to a combination of talent, execution and the will to win a championship—and I think that will push the Blue Devils just over the top. Manek will be the focal point of the Tar Heels’ offense, but with more involvement from Roach, Griffin and Keels, the Banchero-Williams duo that failed to will Duke back into the March matchup has the supporting cast it needs to win, plus a little extra motivation from just the time and place of the game.
Levitan: Duke 85-76
In basketball, familiarity not only breeds contempt but tightens the gap between two teams. Duke and North Carolina split their two matchups this regular season, with neither being particularly close. Beyond the rivalry and beyond the stakes, the Final Four offers a chance to see these teams evenly matched for the first time this season.
With plenty of individual matchups to choose from heading into Saturday, I’ll zero in on the backcourt battle. Roach’s composed play is arguably the biggest reason that Duke survived San Francisco, and North Carolina has received a pair of huge performances from the duo of Love and Davis to get to New Orleans. There were more than a few notable differences between the matchups in Chapel Hill and Durham—Griffin’s drop from 27 points to five sticks out—but Love and Davis struggled mightily in February before exploding in the rematch for 43 combined points. Roach, although quietly brilliant March 5 with 15 points, came off of the bench. I’ll side with his consistency against the boom-potential of Love and Davis, pushing Duke over the edge late and into the national championship game.
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Max Rego is a Trinity senior and an associate sports editor for The Chronicle's 118th volume. He was previously sports managing editor for Volume 117.
Jake Piazza is a Trinity senior and was sports editor of The Chronicle's 117th volume.
Sasha Richie is a Trinity senior and a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.
Micah Hurewitz is a Trinity senior and was previously a sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.
Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.