One of the most exciting rivalries in all of college sports plays out tonight as the 5th-ranked North Carolina Tarheels host their in-state foes the #10 Duke Blue Devils for an Atlantic Coast Conference battle royale in Chapel Hill, N.C.
While the Tarheels have been on a roll lately, winning their last 5 games in ACC play, Duke will have a big challenge ahead of them tonight as they hope to bounce back from their 4th loss on the season, coming off an overtime loss at home to unranked Miami. While Duke hasn’t lost consecutive games in over 3 years, they are tasked tonight with finding a way to limit the scoring opportunities of the nation’s top-scoring offense of the Tarheels, who are averaging 84.1 points per contest this season. That may be a tough task considering that Duke is playing its worst defense in the past 4 years, allowing 69.1 points per contest. Also adding to the challenge on the road, the Blue Devils will have to snap a long-running historical trend in this match-up tonight, as North Carolina has won 31 straight games at the Dean Smith Center. While Duke has been perfect on the road against ACC competition thus far (4-0), with the squad allowing big points and the highest shooting percentage to opposing teams in the conference, the Blue Devils certainly find themselves at an immediate disadvantage on paper heading into tonight’s big showdown.
Consistency on defense has been what is truly lacking for Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team this year, and that will be the key focal point for improvement if the Blue Devils are to stand a chance to win at Chapel Hill this evening. In three of Duke’s four losses this season, they’ve allowed opponents to shoot at a whopping %54 or better, and in their fourth loss of the season, the Blue Devils shot an astonishingly bad %38.2 at home against Miami to let the Hurricanes (who were mediocre themselves in shooting %41.8) creep back into the game, force overtime, and seal a win at Cameron Indoor. Duke didn’t do themselves any favors in that game, as they missed all 6 of their foul shots in the OT session, so another big area of improvement that has to show tonight is in how the Blue Devils close out contests. That is of course if they are able to keep pace with the Tarheels to begin with, who aside from leading the nation in scoring have been big on the glass (ranking 1st in the NCAA with 46.3 rebounds/game), generous with their ball handling (4th in assists with 18.2/game), and physical in the paint (7th in blocked shots with 6.3/game). Trying to contain the likes of UNC’s scoring leaders including Harrison Barnes (17.3. points, 4.8 rebounds/game), Tyler Zeller (15.3 points, 9.6 rebounds) and John Henson (14.3 points, 10 rebounds) is tough enough for any team in NCAA Basketball considering the size of these Tarheels, and for Duke’s inside men including the Plumlee brothers Mason and Miles as well as forward Ryan Kelly, there has to be more consistent, more physical defensive play if the Blue Devils are to pull out an upset win on the road tonight.
For UNC, coming into tonight’s match-up off a come-from-behind victory against Maryland should have the Tarheels poised for another good finish, as their confidence has to be growing after finding themselves down by 9 points in the second half against the Terps, but winning by 9 in the end. Tyler Zeller has been the standout player for the ‘Heels as of late, averaging almost 19 points per game during the 5-game streak for UNC, and should be due for a big game against the slower, less physical inside presence of Duke. However, the biggest asset North Carolina brings into this game is the 6’8″ Harrison Barnes, who Duke does not have a proper answer for. He’s talented from around the 3-pt line (%44.1 percent on the season), and he’s going to give the smaller Duke players trouble with his pace and driving ability. Coming off a couple of poor shooting nights (perhaps due to a sore ankle he’s been nursing), look out for Barnes to be a match-up nightmare especially against Austin Rivers (at 6’4″), and with a lot of focus on this match-up in particular, a heavily guarded Barnes could give way to a lot of open dump-offs down low to Tyler Zeller and John Henson, who also will match-up well against the Duke interior.
Speed therefore is essential for Duke in tonight’s game, as is good shot selection and a high shooting percentage. While UNC is the more dominant team in the paint, and has a host of physical players, Duke is quicker and smaller around the perimeter, and as a team shoots much better from 3-pt range (%39.3 vs. UNC’s %35.8). Thus, the Blue Devils simply have to look for quality shots, and that starts with the guard play of Austin Rivers (14.5 points), Seth Curry (12.5 points) and Andre Dawkins (9.7 points). Curry was perhaps the only Duke shooter that posted a solid game against Miami on Sunday, and if he can lock down another successful night from the perimeter (4-7 from 3-pt land against the ‘Canes), Duke will gain some confidence for their other outside shooters, including Austin Rivers, who shot just 1 of 7 from 3-pt range in that Miami loss. In his first game against UNC though, expect some freshman jitters to be involved for Rivers, as for any visiting player the atmosphere at Chapel Hill can be quite intense and anxiety-producing. His performance, or lack thereof, may be indicative of whether or not Duke can find a way to weasel out a win against a statistically and physically more dominant UNC team.
Betting Lines for #5 North Carolina vs. #10 Duke at Oddsmaker Sportsbook
This match-up is about as close as it gets in College Basketball, at least historically speaking. Over the last 75 meetings between the two teams, Duke has won 38 times, North Carolina 37. An awesome stat I came across today showed that in those 75 games Duke has scored 5,858 points while UNC has scored 5,857. Now that is a close rivalry right there! That said however, if the game goes the way the bookmakers at Oddsmaker have it set, with North Carolina as a 6 point favorite against the spread (-110 odds), the Tarheels will even the playing field at 38 games apiece in the last 76 played, and overtake Duke for scoring honors during that stretch. With North Carolina set as a -260 favorite to win on the money line, and Duke coming in as the road underdog at +220 odds, it’s clear once more who the sportsbooks expect to win. Despite both teams’ pedigrees and fantastic coaches, UNC simply has an edge in talent, and with Duke not up to form heading in, they look in a tough position to try and avoid their first back-to-back losses since early 2009. What might be the most enjoyable wager of this match-up to chase is the over/under, which stands at 156 points tonight. With both teams near the top of the NCAA in scoring, and with Duke uncharacteristically bad at holding down opposing shooting, we could see a big points total tonight, especially knowing that the Blue Devils have to push the ball upcourt quickly if they are to score enough points to compete.
Our Pick to Win:
This is a critical match-up that has big repercussions for both the ACC title chase as well as the seeding for the NCAA tournament. With a Duke win, they’re back in the discussion for being one of the top-seeded teams going into March Madness, but with a loss, they’ll sit on 3 ACC losses in just over 2 weeks, and will face a tough match-up in the first round of the NCAA tournament to come. For North Carolina, getting a victory would give them a further boost of confidence heading down the home stretch of the season, in which they could win out provided they can get past Duke at Cameron Indoor in the final game of the season. In this game tonight however, I fail to justify how Duke is going to stand up defensively to the bigger, more dominant inside presence of UNC’s big three. While they could contend if their outside shooting is on point, Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson are simply going to be too much to deal with, especially on their own court. In a big shooting night for the Tarheels, the Blue Devils get sent packing with a tough loss, as UNC prevails at home 86-73 to cover the points spread and beat out the over/under at Oddsmaker Sportsbook.