Luke DeCock

DeCock: UNC-Duke one of many big games down ACC stretch

Laura Keeley and Andrew Carter preview the Duke-Carolina game

News & Observer sports writers Laura Keeley and Andrew Carter preview the Duke Blue Devils trip to face the University of North Carolina Tar Heels in the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, NC.
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News & Observer sports writers Laura Keeley and Andrew Carter preview the Duke Blue Devils trip to face the University of North Carolina Tar Heels in the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, NC.

Over the years, the Duke-North Carolina games have played such an outsized role in determining the order of the ACC standings that it’s a rare occasion when it doesn’t.

That’s the case Wednesday when the Blue Devils visit the Tar Heels, just one of several big games remaining among ACC contenders thanks to a schedule heavily back-loaded for television purposes.

Despite its recent – and apparently finished – swoon, North Carolina remains the team to beat, but there are so many teams chasing the Tar Heels that it’s going to take a while yet to sort this out. North Carolina plays five of its final six games against teams in the top half of the league, all of which still have a shot, to varying degrees, including Duke twice.

The Tar Heels are far from alone in that respect. All four of Virginia’s remaining games are against the top eight, Miami plays four of six and Duke three of six while Notre Dame only one of four, potentially an advantage for the Irish. And Louisville, despite its self-imposed postseason ban, still has a great chance to play spoiler, with games against Duke, Miami and Virginia.

It’s a lot like the player-of-the-year race, where there are still four clear contenders and strong cases to be made for all of them, although Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon certainly made a statement Monday night with his two-way performance against N.C. State’s Cat Barber. Duke’s Grayson Allen and North Carolina’s Brice Johnson will have a similar stage Wednesday, although without the same head-to-head confrontation, and there’s still time for Duke’s Brandon Ingram to play his way into the conversation.

A Duke win won’t pull the Blue Devils equal with the Tar Heels or past them, but it would open the door for Duke and several other teams to run the Tar Heels down.

And how odd is it that Marcus Paige isn’t even part of the discussion in February of his senior year? From season-opening injury to the worst shooting slump of his career, it’s been a difficult season for Paige, which perhaps makes North Carolina’s 10-2 ACC record in a little more impressive.

That record puts the Tar Heels a game up on Miami and farther ahead of the other challengers, but because there are so many teams close behind, a North Carolina win Wednesday wouldn’t go quite as far as it would in a year where there were only one or two contenders, with Duke among them.

Similarly, a Duke win won’t pull the Blue Devils equal with the Tar Heels or past them, but it would open the door for Duke and several other teams to run the Tar Heels down. This isn’t a zero-sum game between rivals. All of the ACC’s best teams have a stake in this outcome.

This drama at the top of the standings, however it shakes out, sets the stage for a memorable ACC tournament in Washington, with the conference likely to have seven or eight teams in the NCAA tournament (even without Louisville) and North Carolina and Virginia both in contention for a No. 1 seed.

The Friday night semifinals could very well have a late March-early April feel to them if the seeded teams advance as expected. (No guarantees there. But who wants to play Clemson? Who wants to play Florida State?) And the stars could yet align to put together a UNC-Virginia semifinal, which would be something to behold.

We’re not there yet. With so many moving parts in the ACC, Wednesday’s first installment of Duke-Carolina is merely one of several huge games down the stretch, a run that kicked off with Saturday’s dramatic Duke win over Virginia and ends on the final Saturday of the season not only with the reprise of North Carolina at Duke but Louisville at Virginia as well.

News & Observer sports writers Laura Keeley and Andrew Carter preview the Duke Blue Devils trip to face the University of North Carolina Tar Heels in the Smith Center in Chapel Hill, NC.

University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams talks about the challenges of defending Duke with Brandon Ingram and Grayson Allen.

Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, ldecock@newsobserver.com, @LukeDeCock

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