No. 17 Duke at No. 5 North Carolina
When: 8:20 p.m., Saturday
Where: Smith Center, Chapel Hill
TV: ESPN (Dan Shulman, Jay Bilas). Internet live-stream: WatchESPN app. Radio: 106.1-WTKK; SiriusXM channel 84
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Joel Berry (14.7 ppg, 3.8 apg) vs. Frank Jackson (10.3 ppg, 1.8 apg)
Jackson will start again, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said on Friday, while Grayson Allen continues to recover from an ankle injury. Jackson has played well recently amid his expanded role – he’s averaging 19 points during Duke’s past two games. If Berry isn’t UNC’s most important player, he’s in the conversation. The Tar Heels are arguably the best team in the country when Berry is at his best, as he often was earlier this season.
Theo Pinson (6.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg) vs. Matt Jones (7.6 ppg, 3 rpg)
Neither starting two-guard on Saturday is necessarily known all that much for shooting – or scoring. But both can do those things, nonetheless. Both Pinson and Jones play similar roles for their respective teams, and Jones’ leadership as Duke’s “glue guy” can’t be discounted. Neither can Pinson’s versatility. He can play just about every position on the court, and that flexibility is especially valuable against the Blue Devils, whose smaller lineup could otherwise present some match-up problems for UNC.
Justin Jackson (18.4 ppg, 4.7 rpg) vs. Luke Kennard (19.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
Doesn’t get much better than this in college basketball this season. Jackson and Kennard might just be the two frontrunners for ACC Player of the Year honors, and here they are going against each other on the final night of the regular season. Louisville coach Rick Pitino said recently that both should be among the favorites for national player of the year, too. Jackson outscored Kennard by a point (21 to 20) during the first meeting. Both Kennard and Jackson are similarly-sized, similarly-skilled and they play similar roles for their teams.
Hicks, the Tar Heels’ senior, didn’t play in the first game after he’d suffered a hamstring injury in practice the day before. Would it have mattered in Duke’s 86-78 victory? Probably. The Tar Heels clearly missed what Hicks brings in the post. Who knows, though, how Hicks might have fared defensively against Tatum, who dominated the second half and finished with 19 points. Tatum is the next in a growing line of Duke’s one-and-dones, and he’s an effective offensively just about anywhere. Hicks has to avoid foul trouble, which has been a problem for him throughout his time at UNC. Tatum has been at his best in the second half of the season; Hicks, meanwhile, has faded a bit.
Kennedy Meeks (12.6 ppg, 9.1 rpg) vs. Amile Jefferson (11.2 ppg, 8.6 rpg)
Have you spotted the trend yet? UNC and Duke are fairly evenly matched at just about every position, and that remains the case here. Jefferson, known as “The Captain” at Duke, has played an integral role in Duke’s success. When he’s healthy, and playing well, he gives the Blue Devils a dimension that nobody else on the roster can. Meeks, meanwhile, has finally found the consistency (and health) that eluded him the past two seasons. Neither player scored in double-digits in the first meeting, though Jefferson’s defense in the post clearly got the better of Meeks.
Duke’s bench, essentially, consists of Grayson Allen, who’d be starting if he were fully recovered from a nagging ankle injury. He’s not, so Allen, everyone’s preseason All-American, will come off the bench, just as he did against Florida State earlier in the week. Outside of Allen, Duke reserves played a combined seven minutes in that game. UNC is deeper and more reliant on its bench. Luke Maye has become a dependable, valuable contributor. Nate Britt is a senior who has been in every situation imaginable. Tony Bradley, a freshman, might be the team’s most skilled low-post player.
▪ Outright ACC championship could be at stake for Tar Heels
If Notre Dame wins at Louisville on Saturday afternoon, then UNC would have to defeat Duke to finish alone in first place atop the ACC. The Tar Heels have already clinched the No. 1 seed in the ACC tournament, but several players this week spoke of their desire to win the regular season outright.
▪ Duke going for the season sweep
The Blue Devils have won 12 of their past 16 games against the Tar Heels, who since 2010 haven’t fared too well against their fiercest rival. Duke has swept the season series three times in the past seven seasons – a victory on Saturday would give Duke its fourth sweep in eight seasons.
▪ NCAA tournament seeding on the line
The Tar Heels have built a strong case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and a victory against Duke only bolsters their argument. The Blue Devils, meanwhile, are seeking to strengthen their own case for a high seed – and the right to start their tournament run in Greenville, S.C.