Duke has the top ranking, the better record and all the hype.
North Carolina has the experience to go with talent but is an underdog, a rare position for the program.
No. 1 Duke and No. 8 North Carolina play for the first time this season Wednesday at 9 p.m. at Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency rankings project Duke to win by 11. According to Oddshark.com, sportsbooks have installed Duke as a 9.5-point betting favorite.
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Close observers of this game, though, always expect a close, tense battle between the fierce rivals.
Duke (23-2, 11-1 ACC) enters the game atop the ACC standings, riding a nine-game winning streak.
For the Blue Devils to win, here are three things they need to have happen:
Force UNC turnovers
While the Tar Heels (20-5, 10-2 ACC) lead the ACC in scoring (86.5 points per game), they’ve been sloppy with the ball at times.
Among ACC teams, only Georgia Tech (15.1), Pittsburgh (14) and Florida State (13.9) average more turnovers per game than UNC’s 13.6.
According to KenPom’s ratings, 18 percent of UNC possessions have ended with a turnover this season. That’s No. 114 nationally. In ACC play, the percentage is 18.2 which is No. 8 among league teams.
Duke thrives at forcing turnovers, with its opponents averaging 16 per game. Duke’s defense causes turnovers on 20.1 percent of possessions. That’s No. 3 in the country according to KenPom.
The 10.5 steals Duke averages per game is also No. 3 nationally.
Clearly, an opportunity exists for the Blue Devils to limit UNC’s scoring chances and fuel its on transition offense. Duke needs to take advantage.
Points beyond Zion and RJ
The ACC’s top two scorers, RJ Barrett (22.4) and Zion Williamson (22), reliably provide at least 40 points per game for Duke.
To beat elite teams, like UNC, the Blue Devils figure to need a third scorer to emerge. Sometimes that’s Cam Reddish. Sometimes it’s Tre Jones.
Think back to Nov. 6 when Duke slammed Kentucky 118-84. Reddish scored 22 points in 24 minutes to augment Barrett’s 33 and Williamson’s 28.
When Duke lost 89-87 to Gonzaga in Maui, Barrett (23) and Williamson (22) were on par with their scoring. Jones scored 17 to give Duke a chance in the only game the Blue Devils have lost to a ranked team this season.
In addition to what Barrett (26) and Williamson (17) produced at Virginia on Feb. 9, Reddish scored 17 and Jones 13 in Duke’s 91-81 win.
Control UNC’s 3-point shooting
The Tar Heels are No. 3 in the ACC in 3-point shooting percentage, having made 38.2 percent this season. Cam Johnson, UNC’s leading scorer at 16.3 points per game, has made 47.9 percent of his shots from behind the arc.
Coby White, second on the team at 15.7 points per game, has hit 38 percent of his 3-pointers.
Luke Maye and Kenny Williams are both at 32 percent.
Duke’s opponents have made 29.7 percent of their 3-pointers. That has the Blue Devils No. 14 in the country in 3-point defense.
Syracuse, the only ACC team to beat Duke this season, hit 11 of 25 (44 percent) of its 3-pointers to pull the upset. Gonzaga hit 10 of 19 (52.6 percent) in its win over Duke.