At long last, the day is nearly here. The Tobacco Road rivalry kicks off Saturday evening in Chapel Hill in a top-10 showdown with storylines for miles. While the outcome of this one is anyone's guess, The Chronicle's beat writers (and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper) preview the game and offer their predictions:
Andrew Long: North Carolina 69-63
Three of the last four seasons, Duke has rolled into Chapel Hill and handled business — once by a overtime buzzer beater capping a regulation buzzer beater, another time by 20 points and another time by six to sweep the 2022-23 series. The Blue Devils, if the 2020s are any indication so far, are better at the Dean E. Smith Center than the Tar Heels. But anyone who knows college basketball at all will tell you to leave any idea of continuity and order about this rivalry in a dumpster on the side of Tobacco Road.
The last few years of Tar Heel basketball have been pretty putrid. That said, North Carolina just feels like a bit of a different beast this time around, boasting one of America’s hottest hands in RJ Davis, the energy and enormous potential of Elliot Cadeau and Seth Trimble, rivalry veteran Armando Bacot and Harrison Ingram, who can threaten from what feels like everywhere. Don’t get me wrong — I think Duke is better than many give it credit for, but in enemy territory and against an opponent hoping to stop it being four victories from five for the Blue Devils? In a rivalry as historically wishy-washy as this? I just don’t see the Tar Heels losing.
Rachael Kaplan: North Carolina 79-71
Predicting this game feels a bit silly, especially when college basketball has seen so many upsets thus far this season (including of both these storied, and currently top-10, programs). But we’ll go for it anyway. Objectively, this Tar Heel team is better. Davis could easily burn the Blue Devils for upwards of 30 points. He probably will. Duke’s perimeter defense has been spotty, and one on-fire performance (i.e. Blake Hinson) could spell disaster for head coach Jon Scheyer’s team.
The Blue Devils are most successful when they dominate the boards, especially on the offensive end; just look at the Virginia Tech game. Rebounds, despite freshman Jared McCain’s best efforts, depend on the bigs. For sophomore Kyle Filipowski and Mark Mitchell to box out Bacot and Ingram, they need to stay out of foul trouble. The 7-foot center has been struggling with that lately. If the Blue Devils play disciplined and are firing on all cylinders, this game could easily go their way. But with home-court advantage and post-loss rage on the Tar Heels’ side, the home team takes the Chapel Hill edition of this year’s Tobacco Road rivalry.
Mackenzie Sheehy: North Carolina 74-68
In this next volume of the storied rivalry, it is likely that too many things will be going in North Carolina’s favor. Despite losing to Georgia Tech Tuesday 74-73, the Tar Heels have been dominant in the ACC thus far, boasting a 9-0 in-conference record before their brush with the Yellow Jackets. On top of that, Davis is playing some of the best basketball of his career at the moment, making him one of the most dangerous players in the country. He could easily send Duke back to Durham burdened with a loss. Home is where the heart is as well for North Carolina, as the program is currently undefeated in the Smith Center this season.
That’s not to say that the Blue Devils won’t put up a fight. While the team has had several close games as of late, it has persevered through these tests in style. Players like Jeremy Roach and Tyrese Proctor, who have struggled with injuries, seem to be coming into their own at the right time. However, Duke has a tendency to let teams back into the game after gaining a lead or overcoming a deficit, which the Tar Heels will undoubtedly capitalize on. Couple that with the fact that Filipowski hasn’t been his best self lately, and Tobacco Road will likely run Carolina blue Saturday.
Ranjan Jindal: Duke 72-69
The weird part about the rivalry recently is that both teams seem to play fairly well on the road, especially in Duke’s case. Even though the Tar Heels will probably try to speed up the visitors, I think the Blue Devils’ slower pace can control the atmosphere in Chapel Hill. Duke’s backcourt is playing as well as any in the country, and Proctor and Roach’s experience will be paramount. The stat I will be watching the closest is the Blue Devils’ 3-point shooting, because Scheyer’s team has the best percentage in the ACC, but North Carolina is the best in the league at defending the arc. Proctor’s resurgence is another key for me because of his two-way prowess, as he will likely guard Davis and can create a bucket at will. If the likes of Proctor, McCain and Filipowski find their shots, I think the Blue Devils win a close one. I know I’m an outlier, but I’ll take Duke in a low-scoring affair.
Dom Fenoglio: North Carolina 76-72
Just a week ago, this game was firmly in North Carolina’s favor. The Tar Heels boasted an undefeated ACC record, while the Blue Devils had a home loss to Pittsburgh and an unimpressive win against Clemson. However, in the time since, Duke put on one of its best showings of the year against Virginia Tech and North Carolina lost at Georgia Tech. Now, momentum seems to be swinging in the Blue Devils’ favor. Momentum or not, however, I think the Tar Heels have the better squad this year. An experienced Bacot will give Duke trouble inside without Dereck Lively II, and senior Davis is playing like one of the best guards in the country. I wrote in the rivalry issue that this game is (quite literally) as predictable as a coin flip, and I’m picking things to come up on the right side for North Carolina.
Sophie Levenson: Duke 62-60
Barring an in-practice mishap, the Blue Devils will send a fully healthy squad to the Dean Dome, where Davis and Bacot will absolutely put up the fight of a lifetime. Davis is easily one of the best guards in the country — he averages 21.5 points per game, shooting 40.6% from the arc — but even an arm like that has to struggle against the likes of Proctor, Roach, McCain and Caleb Foster working as a backcourt unit. Bacot, for his part, likely has the edge on the offensive end when it comes to Duke’s frontcourt, but will certainly have a tough time getting around Mitchell’s defensive power.
The Blue Devils won’t be putting any record-high numbers on the scoreboard in Chapel Hill, thanks to the Tar Heels’ defense, which is even stronger than usual this season. Still, Duke shooting has seen some of its best as of late. Roach went 4-for-5 from three at Virginia Tech despite having just recovered from his ankle injury, and Proctor went 4-for-6 against Clemson, including a late step-back trey that he knocked down from miles behind the line. The Australian point guard also clinched the game with a 100% show from the charity stripe.
Both teams have what it takes. The mental challenge is this — who wants to be top of the ACC more? The Blue Devils certainly have a chip on their shoulders following early-season losses, but the Tar Heels might have an even bigger one after not even seeing the tournament last year. At the end of the day, whatever happens, I won’t be surprised.
Jonathan Levitan: North Carolina 66-61
Before a turbulent road trip featuring a close brush at Florida State and Tuesday’s loss at Georgia Tech, North Carolina looked practically invincible in the ACC. The Tar Heels have been the best team in the conference by a wide margin, but now have just a one-game lead on Duke, which looked steady at Virginia Tech this week. This game feels more manageable for Scheyer’s team than it did a week ago.
The door is open for the Blue Devils, but on paper, this is still North Carolina’s matchup. One area in which the Tar Heels might have the advantage is 3-point shooting; Duke leads the conference in percentage beyond the arc, but can they do what the Yellow Jackets did and take the long ball away from the Tar Heels? Playing on the road against an offense this well-rounded, the Blue Devil defense manages to keep the score low but surrenders a few costly triples late in a close loss.
Micah Hurewitz: North Carolina 82-74
The first top-10 matchup between these two in what seems like forever is going to be a doozy. Duke is getting hot again and has everyone healthy, and has won 11 of its last 12 games. North Carolina just dropped one on the road against Georgia Tech — who beat the Tar Heels thanks to tough defense in the paint and on the perimeter, which, by the way, are going to be the two biggest factors Saturday. Duke will need Filipowski and Mitchell to be tougher than ever on the glass against Bacot and Ingram, while the backcourt will need to be at the top of its game shooting the ball from deep. The Blue Devils shoot threes at a higher clip and higher volume than their counterparts, so getting going beyond the arc will be key. However, Davis is as hot as ever, and North Carolina is finding support from a deeper supporting cast than Duke can muster. A week ago I would have picked the Tar Heels by a wider margin, but given no stats or resume seem to ever project into the Tobacco Road rivalry, the Blue Devils get a little bit of an edge back. Nevertheless, I don’t know if Duke will be able to out-rebound North Carolina and second-chance points may be the killer. The Tar Heels may take this one in Chapel Hill, leaving the Blue Devils hungry for a season-finale rematch victory on their home court a month from now.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper: North Carolina 81-80
"This year, the Carolina team seems to really be jelling. I think this is one of the best Carolina defensive teams that I've seen in a long time, so I'm bullish on their chances. I think Duke has hit a little bit of a bump in the road lately. They are still a great basketball team and are going to be a great basketball team. I think Carolina will probably hit bumps in the road — I hope it's not [Saturday}, but it could very well be, because you throw the records and everything else out the window when Duke and Carolina play.
"It is the greatest rivalry in sports, and the way that it stays the greatest rivalry in sports, is that both teams continue to be the best, and it continues to be a pretty even series. And that's what we have when Duke and Carolina get together.
"I will tell you this — when I won the race in 2016, I went to the Carolina-Duke game in Cameron as governor, hadn't been governor for a month and a half. And I went early and got a tour of Cameron from some of my Duke friends, and we went [inside] and of course the Cameron Crazies were already there, and many of them started recognizing me and chanting my name and saying, 'Hey, we work for you, we work for you!' And they knew where I went to school, but still, they were like, 'We want selfies.'
"So I went into the crowd and took selfies with Cameron Crazies and got Duke blue paint all over my suit and was appearing all over the social media of me hanging out with the Cameron Crazies. It was great because they helped me get elected. I caught a little grief from some of my Tar Heel friends and family, but it was worth it. I was grateful for that. And it should be another great game."
Editor’s note: This piece is one of many in The Chronicle’s 2023-24 Duke men’s basketball rivalry edition. To read more, click here.
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Jonathan Levitan is a Trinity senior and was previously sports 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.
Rachael Kaplan is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.
Dom Fenoglio is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.
Ranjan Jindal is a Trinity sophomore and an assistant Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.
Sophie Levenson is a Trinity sophomore and sports features editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.
Mackenzie Sheehy is a Trinity sophomore and Blue Zone editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.
Andrew Long is a Trinity junior and sports editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.