- Can the Tar Heels steal a rivalry win in Cameron Indoor, and what would they need to do to make it happen? This week's roundtable examines Duke-UNC.
It's Duke-Carolina week, and college basketball's most famous rivalry will take center stage on Wednesday in Durham, with even former president Barack Obama rumored to be in attendance. The first of this year's two regular season meetings will pit top-10 teams, with the Blue Devils having just returned to No. 1 in the AP poll and the Tar Heels checking in at No. 8. At 23–2 on the season, Duke hasn't lost since a Jan. 14 defeat to Syracuse at home, one where it lost Tre Jones early on to injury. UNC, meanwhile, has won eight of its last nine, the lone loss coming last week at home to No. 3 Virginia.
For this week's roundtable, we asked our staff for their predictions on Wednesday's showdown—for everything from the final score to which freshman on the court will score the most points.
Let’s hear your score prediction and how you think the game will go
Dan Greene: Duke 91, UNC 84 in one of those games where they're not exactly trading leads with every bucket the whole time but the margin never really gets more than 10.
Molly Geary: These teams always seem to play a close one, but asking the Tar Heels to beat this Duke team in Cameron Indoor is a tall task. UNC hasn't won two straight in the series since 2009, and I think this one swings back to the Blue Devils. This will be a big test for UNC's defense, which ranks 20th nationally in efficiency but just seventh in ACC action. Both of these teams play fast, but Duke's transition D ranks fifth in PPP allowed, per Synergy Sports data, while the Tar Heels' ranks a far more-middling 155th. Additionally, per Hoop-Math, the Blue Devils lead the country in defensive eFG% in transition, while North Carolina ranks 332nd. That will be the different in a high-scoring affair. Duke 93, UNC 80.
Michael Shapiro: I’ll take Duke to take care of business at home with an 84–74 victory. It’s tough to envision North Carolina slowing down the Blue Devils this season, especially at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Duke won comfortably at Virginia on Feb. 9 and cruised past NC State at home on Saturday. Wednesday’s rivalry matchup shouldn’t slow Zion Williamson and Co. down, with the Tar Heels’ best chance at an upset coming in the regular-season finale on March 9. Expect Duke to push the pace with abandon on Wednesday, attacking North Carolina’s vulnerable transition defense. Williamson will continue his slate of highlight-reel dunks and R.J. Barrett should continue to shine after Saturday’s triple double. North Carolina has the best chance of anyone to knock off the Blue Devils before the ACC tournament, but its shot is likely next month, not on Wednesday night.
Eric Single: Duke 95, UNC 91. Some rivals play nip-and-tuck games when they cross paths, stiffening up in the face of high emotions and high stakes. And then there are Duke and UNC, which both sit top-20 in adjusted tempo this year (UNC sixth, Duke 18th) and love to play in transition. I think the nervous energy running through one of the most anticipated games of the year manifests itself in missed defensive assignments and career nights for almost all of the elite scorers on the floor, similar to what we saw in Gonzaga's 89–87 win over Duke in Maui. R.J. Barrett will be the reason the Blue Devils ultimately separate late.
Max Meyer: Duke wins 86–80 in an extremely fast-paced game that will see the Blue Devils have plenty of transition opportunities, where they thrive the most. While North Carolina is the much better three-point shooting team (which is why I don't see a blowout), it's going to be tough for the Tar Heels to guard Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett trying to attack the rim.
Emily Caron: My bold prediction was that Carolina will sweep Duke this season, but realistically I say the storied rivals split the series. That starts with the Blue Devils defending their home turf Wednesday night in Durham. Give me Duke 88, Carolina 78. UNC will take care of the ball better than they have this season in transition and at the rim, bringing their absolute A-game for this Tobacco Road rivalry. Expect big nights from the Tar Heels veteran trio of Luke Maye, Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams but don’t sleep on freshman Coby White to provide the offensive boost the Tar Heels will need to try and keep up at Cameron Indoor. Ultimately I say Duke’s defensive will give it the edge over Carolina.
Jeremy Woo: Duke 75, UNC 67. I expect this to start off close, but think Duke pulls away mid-game. UNC’s freshmen have never experienced Cameron, and that coupled with Duke’s talent advantage should be enough for the Blue Devils to win comfortably. Marques Bolden might be an X-factor if he’s effective enough to keep the Tar Heels from going to their small lineup (which has no real chance of defending Zion, but also has the most firepower). I’m looking forward to the chess match.
Which freshman in the game will finish with the most points?
Greene: Zion Williamson, and they're the loudest points too.
Geary: If I'm predicting Duke to score 93 points, it means a whole lot for Zion Williamson, so I'll go with the cliché answer here. I will say, however, that while UNC's Coby White can occassionally run hot and cold, I can easily see him having a big night in a big-time environment.
Shapiro: Expect Williamson to steal the show once again in his first Battle For Tobacco Road. Zion continued his Player of the Year campaign last week, scoring 59 points in two games on 21-for-31 shooting. The likely No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft is shooting an absurd 68.3% from the field this season, scoring 20-plus points in eight of his last 10 games. Barrett should continue his facilitator turn on Wednesday night as Zion racks up the points.
Single: The Tar Heels actually have the length on the perimeter to slow down Cam Reddish if they take care not to lose him outside, which given Reddish's recent late-game heroics should be their primary focus. Instead, I expect R.J. Barrett to build off Saturday's triple double by making sure he gets his early and often. His two biggest challengers, teammate Zion Williamson and UNC guard Coby White, should draw the defensive attention of an experienced player or set of players that won't be asked to score a ton. Barrett's 6'7" frame and slashing style could be a problem for UNC unless he earns the attention of Cam Johnson, which may be too extreme of a commitment.
Meyer: Roy Williams’s primary focus in this one will likely be trying to limit Williamson’s touches, especially in the half court. So I think Barrett will end up with more shot attempts, and therefore, more points. As much of an offensive force that Coby White is for UNC, I don’t love his prospects when he’s getting hounded by Tre Jones.
Caron: Zion Williamson. UNC’s defenders will have a tough time staying in front of Williamson on Wednesday. Luke Maye might be Roy Williams’s best shot at containing Williamson, but he’ll still get beat enough times for the Duke forward to put up monster numbers in front of his home crowd. If Maye can keep up with Duke’s athleticism, there could be a fair case for going with Carolina’s Coby White on this one, but the reality is that Tre Jones might be the best point guard defender in the country right now which could spell trouble for the Tar Heels' best offensive weapon.
Woo: Zion Williamson. I have a feeling this could be a statement game from him, not that he needs one.
Fill in the blank: If UNC wins, it's because...
Greene: ...Luke Maye and Garrison Brooks are able to make Zion uncomfortable enough inside that Duke needs to rely on its jump shooting, which isn't reliable enough to carry the offensive load. The Heels will also need to shoot in the mid-high 40s percentage-wise from three, which they are certainly capable of, and prevent live-ball turnovers more than they usually do.
Geary: The Tar Heels go wild from three. Duke is 12th in ACC play in three-point shooting (30.5%); UNC is second (40.8%). Ten percentage points is a significant difference. We've seen the Blue Devils catch fire in a big game before, but they've shot a dismal 37 for 167 (22.2%) in conference games at home so far. If that doesn't change, North Carolina could make things interesting with a big perimeter night.
Shapiro: Duke can’t make a three. The Blue Devils look borderline unbeatable when the threes are falling, winning by an average of 23.5 points per game when they shoot just 30% or better from beyond the arc. Expect North Carolina to pack the paint and dare the Blue Devils to launch a slate of threes, similar to Syracuse’s formula when it held Duke to 9 for 43 from deep in a January victory. The Tar Heels lack significant rim protection, and will have a tough time hiding Luke Maye defensively. But if the Blue Devils continue to settle for long-range jumpers, North Carolina could have a path to victory.
Single: If UNC wins, it's because Luke Maye fixed whatever part of his game Virginia broke in its 69–61 win in Chapel Hill a week ago, when the senior finished with 11 rebounds but just four points. Duke may be able to get by when one of its three best players is having a bad night, but UNC may not be so lucky. Maye hasn't taken a free throw or hit a three-pointer in two games and turned the ball over five times in Saturday's comically easy win over Wake Forest. The Heels need him to find his scoring touch before stepping into Cameron Indoor.
Meyer: It’s because it had a major advantage from the outside, which is certainly possible. Duke shot 9 of 43 from three in its loss to Syracuse, and 7 of 28 from outside in its close call to Louisville, even with Cam Reddish’s late surge. Luke Maye at the five presents issues for Marques Bolden, and he will get looks unless Duke adjusts to its small-ball lineup with Zion at its tallest player. The Blue Devils have shot 31.3% from three on the season (which ranks 304th nationally), and that number has dropped to 30.5% in conference play. North Carolina’s ability to make threes, whether it’s Maye, White, Cameron Johnson or Kenny Williams, will determine whether or not the Tar Heels have a shot in this one.
Caron: If UNC wins, it’s because they beat Duke from deep. There’s a very slim chance the Tar Heels will beat the Blue Devils in the paint. But one of Duke's weaknesses this season has been defending the three-point shot against experienced teams. Enter: Carolina's opening. Asking Carolina to compete from the arc is still no small feat. We saw how tough it was for Virginia, but if snipers like Cameron Johnson and Kenny Williams (who have proven to be consistent from beyond the arc) can exploit this weakness, the Tar Heels might have a shot. It’ll also be because they found a way to contain Zion Williamson or at least limit his scoring somewhat. I’m not sure that Carolina has an answer for Williamson but if they find one, they might walk away with a win.
Woo: Zion gets in foul trouble. Duke is really not the same team when he’s off the floor. If there’s one snag it can hit on a nightly basis, it’s the possibility he misses important chunks of time. I’ve noticed sometimes refs have trouble officiating him because he’s such an unusual athlete, and does things in the air at high speeds that are tough to process. It sounds simple, but if he’s not on the court, Carolina has a much better chance to split the difference here.