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The Dean’s List: UNC vs. Duke Preview

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Rankings are fluid, but hatred lasts forever.

North Dakota State v Duke Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Welcome to The Dean’s List! The weekly segment that brings readers hot takes, freezing cold takes, and everything in between from the world of Carolina athletics.

This Saturday the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Duke Blue Devils will clash as unranked teams for the first time since 1960. To give an idea of how long ago that was, RCA released the very first consumer-available color TV in just four years prior, and the average cost of a new house was $12,000. Perhaps the most disgusting tidbit from 1960 is that the cost of a gallon of gas was about 25 cents. Needless to say, this unranked rivalry game feels like a weird leftover from 2020 that nobody asked for or wanted.

We all know that rankings can be really questionable at times, but the one consistency that we’ve had with UNC and Duke is that one of these teams were always good to the point that if the underdog won, it was a really big deal. Perhaps the biggest and most recent example of this is when UNC swept Duke in the 2017-18 regular season after Zion Williamson suffered an injury very early in the first game. We all know why Carolina hasn’t enjoyed time in the AP top 25 this season, but what I want to do is discuss how the Duke Blue Devils went from a six-loss team last season, to having six losses going into Saturday’s game. Let’s get started.

Scheduling woes

A lot has been said about the lack of offseason, practice time, and non-conference games for the Tar Heels, but if we’re being honest Duke had quite a time getting to play at the beginning of this season. It all started with their first game of the season against Gardner-Webb getting postponed, and then they played three games before their game against Elon was postponed. They took a beating from sixth-ranked Illinois, and not long after that game Coach K made the decision to cancel the rest of their nonconference games out of “an abundance of caution due to the COVID-19 pandemic”. The players went home for the holidays, and returned to start ACC play against Notre Dame.

From there we would see games against Pitt and Florida State get postponed due to COVID issues. Overall Duke has played four fewer games than UNC so far this season, but once again it’s worth pointing out that three of those games were missed thanks to Coach K’s decision. It won’t necessarily be an excuse Saturday, because there are no excuses when it comes to this game, but it’s an important fact to point out when looking at their entire season so far.

Young, inexperienced, and lacking an identity

Coach K has gotten to enjoy a number of years of having some studs at Duke, and it felt like the constant cycle of one-and-done players would never end. If there were ever a year that it could end, however, it would be this 2020-21 season. Despite bringing in four five-star players and two four-stars, Duke has largely been a team that can’t figure out a way to get consistent production out of their roster. The difference between this year and previous years? Experience.

The list of key non-freshmen players that returned for the Blue Devils is as follows: Matthew Hurt, Wendell Moore, Jordan Goldwire, and Joey Baker. That’s it. That’s the list. in previous seasons we’ve seen players like Tre Jones, Grayson Allen, Quinn Cook, 100 members of the Plumlee family, and Amile Jefferson stick around enough to give Duke the experience that they needed to give their teams some degree of consistency. Not only is this year’s team lacking said experience, but not having NBA-level talent at the point guard position has made this roster a train wreck. Jordan Goldwire has been highly ineffective to say the least, which is brutal because he is also the third-highest amount of minutes on the team due to no true backup at the position.

Finally, let’s talk about who the leader of this team is. Right now Matthew Hurt is the engine of this team, which has to be concerning if you are Coach K. Jalen Johnson and and DJ Steward have shown flashes of being really good, and in the case of Johnson, he is shooting at one of the highest clips from the field at 53.9%. The problem? He averages 23.1 minutes a game. Coach K is used to playing his best players a high amount of minutes per game, but that hasn’t been possible with who probably should be the best player on the team. This makes Matthew Hurt “the guy”, which is not up to the standard of Duke Blue Devils basketball. In short: it’s a down year when it comes to the level of talent in Durham.

Prediction

Despite all of the negatives that I have spewed out about the Blue Devils, I do think that this team has what it takes to win games. The problem, however, is that so far their portfolio is far from impressive — though they did dominate the same team that just wiped the floor with UNC a couple of nights ago. The counterpoint is that their most recent loss was to Miami, who is currently the third-worst team in the conference. Needless to say, it’s really hard to trust Duke right now if you are a fan, and that actually may play in UNC’s favor.

I know what some of you may be thinking: Carolina has lost six games this season as well, and they looked pretty bad against Clemson. I would argue that the Heels have only lost two of their last nine games, but also that this UNC team presents a pretty sizable advantage against the Blue Devils. In case you didn’t pick up on my hint, UNC has a profound size advantage over Duke assuming that we don’t see a lot of Mark Williams. Outside of the freshman big, Jalen Johnson and Matthew Hurt are the tallest players in the regular rotation at 6’9. The Heels should be able to dominate the boards and get what they want at the rim in this one, but of course the question is whether or not they will.

Overall, I think the results of this game will depend on which Carolina team shows up. Will the impressive versions of Roy Williams’ best players show up? Or will three-fourths of them be non-factors like they were against Clemson? Considering how last year’s UNC team was much worse and Duke was much better, I’m forced to give the edge to the Tar Heels. Duke will look much better than they have all season long, but I also expect the same from UNC and I truly believe they are the more talented team. It’s worth noting, however, that I thought they were more talented than Clemson too, so please do not place any bets on anything that I’ve said. I will not be held accountable for monetary losses.

Prediction: UNC 78, Duke 75