6:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: North Carolina -3, Over/Under: 165.5
On the final day of the College Basketball Regular Season, the sport’s greatest rivalry takes center stage as the Third-Ranked North Carolina Tar Heels host the Fourth-Ranked Duke Blue Devils for the second time in three weeks, this time from the Dean E. Smith Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. It’s amazing what can change in the course of a few weeks, for coming into their earlier meeting this season, it was Duke (26-4, 14-3 in ACC) who was riding a wave of momentum courtesy of their heralded Freshman Class of stars, winners of nine in a row, and twenty-three out of twenty-five overall. Mike Krzyzewski’s charges had for all intents and purposes captivated the viewing public to that point, holding them in palm of their proverbial hand, only for fate to reveal it’s cruel hand, mere moments into their meeting with the Tar Heels at that. Barely a minute into the action, the grandest of those Freshmen, Zion Williamson (21.6 PTS, 68.3% FG, 29.2% 3FG, 8.8 REB, 2.2 AST, 2.2 STL, 1.8 BLK, 42.4 PER) slipped on the hardwood, with his shoe exploding in a fashion as if it came from an action movie, spraining his right knee in the process. The man-child went on to miss the rest of the contest, and hasn’t suited up for the Blue Devils since. What ensued afterward was one team struggling to keep up with their bitter in-state rivals, hampered by an already short rotation that became all the more shallow. Williamson’s fellow uber-recruits R.J. Barrett (23.3 PTS, 46.3% FG, 31.2% 3FG, 7.4 REB, 4.2 AST, 0.8 STL, 24.4 PER) and Cameron Reddish (14.0 PTS, 36.2% FG, 33.6% 3FG, 3.7 REB, 2.1 AST, 1.7 STL, 0.5 BLK, 15.6 PER) carried virtually the ENTIRE load, accounting for all but a dozen of their team’s points in the 88-72 defeat, their second at Cameron Indoor Stadium this season. Barrett totaled Thirty-Three Points and Reddish added Twenty-Seven, shooting a combined 21-of-45 from the field (46.7%), while the rest of the group was barely visible, netting a scant 4-of-27 overall (14.8%). As a team, the hosts shot a miserable 34.7% from the floor, including 8-of-39 from beyond the arc (20.5%), which if you haven’t come to the conclusion, simply isn’t one of this team’s strong suits this season. Thus far, Duke has only managed to knock down 30.9% of their attempts from the perimeter, ranking 328th in the country, and Thirteenth in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Needless to say, that is very un-Duke like.
Since that loss, the Blue Devils have experienced their ups and downs, winning three out of their following four contests, though they very nearly avoided a disastrous outcome this past Tuesday Night, salvaging a 71-70 victory over Wake Forest on Senior Night in Durham, no less. Perhaps this was a classic case of overlooking a weaker opponent or simply looking ahead to a rivalry, but whatever it was, this home side came out of the lockerroom very, very sluggishly. Give the Demon Deacons credit though, for they were absolutely game against their Tobacco Road Brethren, trailing by just One Point at Intermission and leading by as many as ten early in the Second Half. Leading 69-68 with 43.9 seconds left to play, the hosts bled the Shot Clock before the aforementioned Barrett connected on a crucial jumper with his off-hand, taking back the lead with only 17.3 seconds remaining. Wake Forest bounced back with a layup with 7.4 seconds left, before Duke turned the ball over on the inbound, giving the visitors one last chance to strike back, though their final attempt ultimately curled off the rim as the buzzer sounded. With Williamson still sidelined, and Reddish struggling mightily (6 PTS, 2-of-9 FG, 3 TO), it was up to Barrett to save the day, carrying his team with Twenty-Eight Points on 11-of-23 shooting from the field (), along with Five Rebounds, Four Assists, and a pair of Blocks. However, he was also responsible for nearly half (7) of Duke’s Fifteen Turnovers, while joining his cohorts in a miserable night from the Charity Stripe (6-of-14 FT), netting just 16-of-26 Free-Throws (61.5%). It remains o be seen if in fact Williamson will be available for tonight’s affair, for while Coach K stated that he had participated in some light drills earlier in the week, he openly admitted that it would “be hard to see him be ready in time for the ACC Tournament”. So don’t count on another shoe explosion, folks…
Meanwhile, where once they were branded giant-killers, North Carolina (25-5, 15-2 in ACC) is now playing the role of favorite in their rematch with Duke, with what could be viewed as a golden opportunity to potentially lock down a No. One Seed in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, no matter how they perform in their Conference Tournament. Granted, there is still plenty for the Tar Heels to play for at this point, as they currently sit tied with Second-Ranked Virginia for First Place in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Winners of six straight outings, and thirteen of their past fourteen overall, Roy Williams’ charges have only gotten better as the season has progressed, emerging as one of the more confident favorites heading into March Madness. And even though they were carrying a seven-game winning streak into that previous meeting with the Blue Devils, it was that convincing victory, even with Williamson felled by injury, that has ultimately awoken the world to this team’s quality. Unusually, this is a rather radical departure from previous successful incarnations of the Heels; there isn’t a dominant big man (Average Height is 6′-6″), they’re definitely on the younger side of things (Average Experience is 1.9 Years), and most importantly, they play from the perimeter opposed to out of the Post. This particular group may just be Williams’ best when it comes to the Money Ball, knocking down a stellar 37.3% of their attempts from beyond the arc (48th Overall), and ranking First in the ACC in Three-Point Field Goals (9.4 3FG/G) and Second in Three-Point Percentage (37.8%). Furthermore, five different players shoot over 37.0% from that distance, most prolific among them Cameron Johnson (16.9 PTS, 51.6% FG, 47.9% 3FG, 5.8 REB, 2.3 AST, 1.3 STL, PER) a former transfer from Pittsburgh, who has improved immensely in his final season at Chapel Hill. Fellow Senior Luke Maye (14.9 PTS, 43.8% FG, 30.2% 3FG, 10.3 REB, 2.3 AST, 0.6 STL, 0.6 BLK, PER) will also be taking his final bow from the Dean E. Smith Center, and has once again been no small factor in their success. These two were HUGE in the previous win over Duke, combining for Fifty-Six Points on 25-of-41 shooting from the field (61.0%), Twenty-Two Rebounds, Six Assists, and Three Steals. However, what has remained the same for North Carolina is their knack for speeding things up and scoring in transition, and they once again have a young maestro to direct matters in the form of Freshman Point Guard Coby White (16.2 PTS, 43.7% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 3.3 REB, 4.1 AST, 1.0 STL, PER), who leads the Third Highest-Scoring Team in the country at 86.8 Points per Game.
When we last saw the Tar Heels, they managed to AVOID looking ahead to tonight’s affair, dumping bottom-feeding Boston College in a 79-66 victory on the road. There was no slow start for these guys who after a 16-16 tie early in the First Half, promptly ran off a dozen unanswered points in route to scoring Thirty-Two of the final Forty-One Points accounted for by both teams in the First Half. Despite shooting just 42.1% from the field, the visiting side more than made up for it by battering the Eagles on the glass, outrebounding them 53-32, including 17-6 on the offensive end, which led to a wealth of easy second-chance points. Speaking of Rebounds, the aforementioned Maye pulled down a career-high Twenty all by himself to accompany Seventeen Points and Five Assists. Johnson led the way with Twenty-Two Points on 9-of-18 shooting from the field (50.0%), including 3-of-7 from downtown (42.9%), while also adding a dozen Rebounds and Five Assists of his own. However, the story of this affair was North Carolina’s Defense, which relegated Boston College to a disastrous 34.3% shooting from the floor, with only their three-point shooting late (12-of-36) making things look semi-respectable. This was a rather significant victory for Williams’ troops, for it marked their first 15-win season in the Atlantic Coast Conference since the league expanded to eighteen teams back in 2012-2013, with an opportunity to expand that school record against their hated rivals.