5 things to know before Duke men's basketball visits rival North Carolina to close regular season

Dereck Lively II (1) surveys the court during Duke's Feb. 4 win against North Carolina.
Dereck Lively II (1) surveys the court during Duke's Feb. 4 win against North Carolina.

March is here, and just one game remains in the regular season for Duke and North Carolina. When the historic rivals meet Saturday evening inside the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, there is plenty on the line — here are five things to know before tipoff.

Defending Bacot

Armando Bacot is a treasure for the Tar Heel faithful: averaging 16.5 points and 10.8 rebounds per contest, the North Carolina senior has established himself as one of the premier big men in the sport. However, in the last Tobacco Road matchup, a 63-57 Blue Devil win in Durham, Duke limited Bacot to 14 points on 50% shooting and 10 rebounds. 

“You want to fight him early and make it hard for him to catch,” Duke head coach Jon Scheyer said in a media availability Friday afternoon. “... [Bacot is] going to get [his] to a certain degree. You need to fight them early and make life as difficult as possible.”

The key for the Blue Devils: Dereck Lively II. Eight blocks highlighted Lively’s historic night in Cameron Indoor Stadium in the last matchup between the two rivals. Now, he has the opportunity to follow it up down the road. Also important for the Blue Devils, in addition to individual matchups, will be playing intense team defense.

“We need to have different looks. We have the versatility to do that or not to do that,” Scheyer said. 

Experience, experience, experience

As the postseason nears, Scheyer will need output from his experienced players. Going into an away gym on an opponent’s senior night is a tall task. Two graduate students, Ryan Young and Jacob Grandison, have both done it on multiple occasions. 

“When you go through four years of college and whether your team was really successful, or whether they came up short, you go through hardships no matter what,” Scheyer said. “[Young and Grandison] are so valuable for us.” 

Even with the additions of Young and Grandison, North Carolina holds the experience advantage. Bacot, along with teammates Caleb Love, RJ Davis and Leaky Black, has played in a number of rivalry matchups, including an 81-77 Tar Heel win at the Final Four in April 2022. 

Should the game come down to the wire, Duke’s first-year head coach will need his veterans, including junior captain Jeremy Roach, to step up. Roach has been an invaluable leader on this year’s young roster. When the team has needed him, he has been a steady player at the guard position. On Saturday at North Carolina, Roach will need last year’s March magic to return. 

Rising to the challenge

Following Duke’s controversial loss at Virginia, questions began to pop up about the team’s potential to compete in March. However, a five-game winning streak has answered those calls. In those last five games, Duke has not let up more than 67 points.

“In the last four to six weeks, we've taken [our defense] to another level,” Scheyer said. 

Most improved may be the defense of freshman guard Tyrese Proctor. Coming into the season as a highly touted reclassification prospect, the 18-year-old struggled to consistently excel. However, when the calendar turned to the ACC season, the Australian started to run the point, and he has picked up his defense. 

To Scheyer, the growth of the whole squad is a testament to their willingness to improve. 

“Our guys come in, and they have an individual routine they do in the morning before practice or after practice,” Scheyer said. “It's as good of a group as we've had with the individual time.” 

Leading Lively

Another important piece to Duke’s midseason turnaround has been the play of Lively. Starting the year sidelined with a calf injury, the 7-foot-1 center had early difficulties making an impact on the college floor. With time, however, Lively has been excellent defensively.  

Notably, Lively has struggled to score the basketball. If he can win his matchup against Bacot, it is likely the Blue Devils can secure the regular-season sweep. In addition, as both the ACC and NCAA tournament near, Scheyer’s squad will need Lively's inside scoring potential to flash. To the surprise of few, Scheyer believes in his freshman.  

“I hope people see what a competitor [Lively] is, and how tough he is,” Scheyer said. “He goes out there every play, and that serves you well.”

The road ahead

As previously mentioned, this installment of the Duke-North Carolina rivalry has intense postseason implications. For the Blue Devils, a top-four ACC finish and improved NCAA seeding rely on this matchup. On the other side, North Carolina needs a victory to stay alive on the March Madness bubble. 

“We know it's gonna be a tough game, we know it's gonna be a tough environment,” Scheyer said. “That's why you come to Duke, to play in those games.”

On Saturday, Duke and North Carolina must stay in the moment, leaving behind what cannot be controlled. The college basketball world will be watching and the NCAA tournament committee will be watching, but which side will stay level-headed and secure the all-important victory? 


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