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UNC vs. Duke: Game Preview

It all comes down to this.

NCAA Basketball: North Carolina at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Saturday’s battle on the Roy Williams Court at the Dean E. Smith Center has all the makings of a potential all-time classic.

To start off tomorrow, ESPN’s College Gameday will be live from the Smith Center. Doors open at 9:30 AM for the 11:00 AM broadcast. Full information can be found here.

This will be the 12th meeting between these two teams with both of them ranked in the top five of the AP Poll. Carolina holds a 6-5 margin in the previous 11 meetings of the teams in this scenario, but Duke won the last top five matchup which was in February 2008.

Three starters and key players, seniors Luke Maye and Kenny Williams and second-year graduate student Cameron Johnson, will play their final game in Chapel Hill. In case anyone forgot about their senior day, head coach Roy Williams made pointed comments about them in his press conference yesterday, including this gem about Maye:

With a 4:00 PM tipoff for the Louisville-Virginia game, both UNC and Duke will know what is truly at stake in the ACC standings by halftime. A Virginia loss puts the regular season title on the line. It will either be an outright championship for Carolina or a three-way tie.

Notwithstanding all these factors, there is just one question that matters: Will the North Carolina Tar Heels beat their archrivals on Senior Night?

The biggest question for both teams will be if Zion Williamson will dress. If so, will he play and how much? According to media reports earlier in the week, Williamson is not expected to play on Saturday:

In the first matchup this season, the Tar Heels took advantage of the absence of Williamson and poor defensive play by Marques Bolden. Carolina scored 65 points in the paint with Maye, Johnson, and Garrison Brooks taking advantage on the inside.

On Tuesday night when the Blue Devils barely survived against Wake Forest in Durham, Duke’s lack of depth reared its ugly head when injuries piled up. Bolden went down with a hip injury and Tre Jones missed several minutes of action before returning with about three minutes left in the game.

Bolden and Jones will be in the lineup Saturday, but will they be at 100 percent? Jones seemed to be fine, but Bolden’s injury looked potentially serious. Needless to say, with the absence of Williamson and a potentially hobbled Bolden, the Tar Heels need to work the inside and finish in the paint. With Nassir Little being the first off the bench and Sterling Manley returning to the lineup, both can help provide valuable minutes and be a safety valve in the case of foul trouble or injuries.

Jones has been one of the few players this season who has been able tp stifle Coby White. As my colleague Jake Lawrence points out, “The most important battle may be between two freshman point guards trying to outplay the other.” In front of a friendly crowd and perhaps with another step on Jones, can White and the rest of the outside shooters make some baskets this time around?

A 2-20 three-point performance does not normally translate into a 16-point win against the top ranked team in the country on the road. Such an abysmal shooting display from the Tar Heels usually means disaster, such as during the historic home loss versus Louisville. However, through their inside play, tough defense, and some fortuitous circumstances, UNC left Durham with that double-digit victory.

The Carolina shooters cannot risk another showing like the one in Cameron with so much on the line. It is important to note that the reliance on the outside shot does not translate to victories, as seen in the home game against Virginia. With the potential advantages in the front court, working the ball from inside-out can set up good looks for a team that has shot about average from outside the past couple games. Johnson can solidify one of the best three-point seasons in Carolina history, while White can hold the UNC freshman record for threes with three makes tomorrow night.

There will be two X-factors in this game. On the dark blue side, RJ Barrett has been carrying the Blue Devils in the absence of Williamson. In his past five games, including a 33-point outing against UNC, Barrett has averaged 26.2 points per game. The league’s leading scorer kept his team afloat against Carolina and saved Duke from a big upset Tuesday night. Expect him to be the focal point of the Blue Devil offense tomorrow night.

For the good guys, Maye has been a thorn in the side of Carolina’s rivals. He shot better than 58 percent in the first game against Duke, racking up a 30-point night in his last game in Durham. His 15 rebounds against the Blue Devils began a stretch of five consecutive games with at least 10 rebounds, including 20 on Tuesday versus Boston College. Even when baskets were not falling, Maye has shown a complete game in the past couple weeks. For a player that has worked so hard to prove himself on this level, this is the bottom line: Tomorrow night, as Maye goes, so goes the Tar Heels.

Projected Lineups


  • Tre Jones - Freshman - Guard - PPG 8.7 - RPG 3.8 - APG 5.2
  • Alex O’Connell - Sophomore - Guard - PPG 5.0 - RPG 1.9 - APG 0.6
  • RJ Barrett - Freshman - Forward - PPG 23.3 - RPG 7.4 - APG 4.2
  • Cam Reddish - Freshman - Forward - PPG 14.0 - RPG 3.7 - APG 2.1
  • Marques Bolden - Junior - Center - PPG 6.0 - RPG 4.8 - APG 0.5

North Carolina

  • Coby White - Freshman - Guard - PPG 16.2 - RPG 3.3 - APG 4.1
  • Kenny Williams - Senior - Guard - PPG 8.6 - RPG 3.6 - APG 3.6
  • Cameron Johnson - Senior - Guard - PPG 16.9 - RPG 5.8 - APG 2.3
  • Luke Maye - Senior - Forward - PPG 14.9 - RPG 10.3 - APG 2.3
  • Garrison Brooks - Sophomore - Forward - PPG 8.0 - RPG 5.8 - APG 1.3

At the end of the day, it is Carolina-Duke. Previous records, current rankings, and future implications can be tossed out the window. Simply put, if the Tar Heels can impose their game on the Blue Devils and take advantage of matchups on the court, Carolina can put themselves in a position for the top seed in the ACC Tournament.