Five things for No. 7 Duke men's basketball's Tobacco Road rivalry matchup against No. 3 North Carolina

Jeremy Roach drives through traffic in last year's win against North Carolina in Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Jeremy Roach drives through traffic in last year's win against North Carolina in Cameron Indoor Stadium.

Duke-North Carolina games are always a date to mark on the basketball calendar. But with both teams playing well and top spot in the ACC on the table, Saturday’s showdown shapes up to be one of the most consequential and exciting iterations in a while.

Here are five things to look out for before the 6:30 p.m. tipoff at the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill:

Nobody’s perfect

Duke and North Carolina will cross paths for the first time this season as the teams sit at first and second place in the ACC, respectively. The Tar Heels entered this week undefeated in conference play, but the team’s flawless conference record shattered Tuesday against Georgia Tech. A left-handed layup from Naithan George put the Yellow Jackets up by a single point on the Tar Heels with under 10 seconds remaining.

The Blue Devils’ first ACC loss similarly occurred against Georgia Tech at the beginning of December. In early stages of that game, sophomore guard Tyrese Proctor suffered an ankle injury, and Duke’s offense was never able to fully gain traction. The buzzer sounded with the Yellow Jackets up four, and the Blue Devils commenced conference play with a loss. Duke was stunned for its second ACC loss in Cameron Indoor Stadium against Pittsburgh last month, when Blake Hinson didn’t miss a single 3-pointer on seven attempts. The loss represented head coach Jon Scheyer’s first conference defeat at home since he took the position last season.

“Right now, I think everybody in the country feels that, any game they play, they can win,” Scheyer said at a Thursday media availability. “Those kinds of games happen throughout the whole season. It creates belief that creates togetherness.”

These losses highlight the, albeit minimal, flaws of the ACC’s undisputed giants. With a lack of focus and the proper mismatches, any team can beat another team considered significantly more talented. And neither the Blue Devils nor the Tar Heels are immune to upsets. Both teams have shown spurts of inconsistency throughout the season, and come Saturday, anything can happen, especially since North Carolina’s loss means that the ACC lead is up for grabs.

The mighty RJ Davis

The Duke-North Carolina matchup looks much different this year than it did last season. The 2022-23 season saw the preseason first-ranked Tar Heels fall from bliss, while Caleb Love — who sealed North Carolina’s Final Four win against Duke in 2022 — decided to leave the team and transfer to Arizona, leaving RJ Davis as the team’s undisputed floor general. 

Taking on the leadership role flawlessly, Davis has been North Carolina’s most valuable asset this season. The senior guard leads the team in scoring with 21.5 points per game in addition to shooting 92.1% from the free-throw line and 40.6% from three. 

“RJ Davis has been having a great year. He's played with such a great pace. And he's done it by being elite,” Scheyer said. “Those are a great recipe for a guy that can score a lot of points. And not to mention, he's got total freedom to shoot any shot. So you can’t relax for one second.”

The Jerry West Award candidate has played through his fair share of rivalry games, particularly against the Blue Devils’ own Jeremy Roach, and makes his presence known when it's most needed. 

“Davis has been through a lot of wars,” Scheyer said.

Expect the Tar Heels to run their offense through its lead scorer. Or as Scheyer implies, the battle-tested rivalry veteran.

Captain Roach

Duke’s senior captain has matched up against North Carolina more times than any other play on his team’s roster. In Roach’s first game against the Tar Heels his freshman year, he led the Blue Devils in scoring with 16 points. Duke would go on to lose that game, but North Carolina was given a proper introduction to the player who would be the Blue Devils’ point guard — and in many ways the Tar Heels’ nemesis — for the next four years. 

“[Roach has] just been a steady force. Jeremy, he doesn't get fazed by much,” Scheyer said. “And especially this year, he's been such a good leader with his demeanor, not getting fazed by something that doesn't go his way. And I expect him to do the same thing Saturday. He's been very vocal about preparation and what we need to do in order to win.”

Last year against the Tar Heels in Cameron Indoor Stadium, Roach again led Duke with 20 points and played the entire 40 minutes. His experience brings significant value to Scheyer’s young squad, and his performance will almost certainly affect the game’s outcome — just as it has for the last three years.

Battle for the boards

North Carolina currently sits atop the ACC in offensive rebounds, averaging 12.5 a game, led by the big-man duo of Bacot and Harrison Ingram. Duke, on the other hand, is ranked 11th for offensive boards, headlined by sophomore center Kyle Filipowski. Unfortunately for the Blue Devils, the 7-footer is hardly a true center and is often shooting from the perimeter, making it at times unlikely for him to grab the offensive board and make the most of his outstanding height. 

“[Rebounding is] about the mentality. You have to find a way to come up with the ball,” Scheyer said. “And it's really no different from Saturday. [North Carolina is] great at it. It's what I've known them to do since I've been a freshman in college. You have to go with the right mindset about getting the rebound.”

Fighting to win every board will be a key strategy for either team to have an advantage over the other in a game where the tightest of margins have the widest of impacts. And especially considering the physicality that comes in every Duke game against North Carolina, earning the edge in rebounding will be no effortless task.

All eyes on Tobacco Road

Since the AP first started ranking men’s college basketball teams during the 1948-1949 season, Duke and North Carolina have combined for a total of 1,832 total weeks ranked in the AP top 25. 

Currently, the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels sit at the No. 7 and No. 3 spots, respectively, in the AP rankings, and Saturday’s match represents the 49th time the two teams will face off when both are ranked in the top 10. The 49 top-10 meetups from the two teams is more than any other pair of opponents and highlights the significance behind what’s widely considered the greatest rivalry in college basketball.

Last season, ESPN garnered its two largest men’s college basketball audiences during the broadcasts of the two regular-season Duke versus North Carolina matchups. Each program brought in over 2.5 million viewers. 

“You have to treat it with the same respect and level of preparation as you would for any game, but, obviously it's an exciting thing for us,” Scheyer said. 

The Blue Devils’ and the Tar Heels’ matchup will be the spotlight of college basketball this weekend, and with the game’s hype comes its unpredictability. North Carolina has the crowd on its side, but knows not to disrespect the rivalry and the chaos it brings with it. 

Take the meeting between the blue bloods in the 1984 ACC tournament semifinal. The first-ranked Tar Heels were led that season by a young Michael Jordan before the entire world knew his name. Nonetheless, No. 16 Duke was able to prevail, earning then-head coach Mike Krzyzewski his second-ever win against the Tar Heels.

Countless meetings during the two schools’ heated history have developed into exciting endings similar to the one in 1984, and for that reason, the game annually brings in substantial viewership. It’s safe to say many will be tuning into this one, too.


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