Was it only a few weeks ago that North Carolina was the team with everything to prove and Duke the team with everything going for it? It seems like eons now. How quickly those tables have turned.
Since that first meeting on Feb. 20, North Carolina has run its win streak to 12 games while Duke imploded late at Wake Forest on Wednesday and has to deal with the uncertainty surrounding coach Mike Krzyzewski after he became light-headed during that game.
The Tar Heels have moved ahead of the Blue Devils in the ACC standings, rebounding from their early struggles. The best Duke can finish is third, not quite what was expected from a team picked to win the ACC and contend for a national title. Suddenly, it’s the Blue Devils in search of a big win, not the other way around.
And while the NCAA seeding process is beyond anyone’s immediate control, if only one of the two local contenders is going to get to stay home in Raleigh, Saturday might serve as a one-game proxy for that coveted spot.
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Virginia would presumably have a lock on one of the two available slots – although the Cavaliers’ NCAA seeding profile isn’t dramatically better than Duke or North Carolina, so that could change in Greensboro – leaving one open. Duke appears to have the edge at the moment. A North Carolina win Saturday could move the Tar Heels ahead heading into the ACC tournament.
So besides the usual stakes – pride, bragging rights, Senior Night spoilage, ACC tournament seeding and so on – both teams have very real incentive. Given the role geography tends to play in the NCAA tournament, their postseason prospects may depend on it.
For Duke in particular, a good performance Saturday would contribute in that department in another way. The circumstances of Duke’s loss to the Deacons were all too familiar, because they recalled the manner of the earlier losses to Clemson and North Carolina: Duke, one of the nation’s most potent offensive teams over the course of the season, turned utterly harmless at the worst possible time.
Over the final eight minutes at Clemson, Duke was outscored 18-5. At North Carolina, an 11-point second-half lead evaporated in 10 minutes. And Wednesday, the Blue Devils went 0-for-4 from the floor and turned the ball over four times during Wake Forest’s 17-0 run. Meanwhile, Duke went 6-for-27 from 3-point range against the Deacons, once again living and dying from the 3-point line.
It’s all too similar to the way the Blue Devils have exited the NCAA tournament early on occasion recently, which certainly should sound an alarm for Duke’s postseason prognosis. A rebound against UNC on Senior Night would go a long way toward assuaging those concerns.
Duke is running out of time to become the powerhouse, NBA-style team they and Krzyzewski envisioned before the season. It is subpar defensively (ninth in the ACC and 70th nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s efficiency ratings) and prone to inconsistency. The Blue Devils would be well served, for their own confidence if nothing else, to produce a commanding win Saturday.
North Carolina, playing free and easy, has nothing to lose at this point. The Tar Heels aren’t expected to win. They weren’t expected to win in Chapel Hill. That win established their legitimacy. Now Duke needs a win just like it to prove the same.