One of college basketball's biggest rivalries resumes for the 2017-18 season on Thursday night, as No. 9 Duke faces No. 21 North Carolina in Chapel Hill in the first two matchups for the in-state foes. Although Virginia has all but locked up the ACC regular season championship, the game (tipping off at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN) is still a huge match-up for two ACC contenders looking to iron out recent struggles before March.
Duke (19-4, 7-3 ACC) is coming off an 81-77 loss to St. John’s on Saturday, it's second in the last three games. Meanwhile, North Carolina (17-7, 6-5 ACC) has dropped three of its last four games, falling to Virginia Tech, NC State and Clemson before earning a victory over Pittsburgh last weekend. In the last 100 meetings between the Blue Devils and the Tar Heels, both teams have won 50 games each and the difference in points scored is only two (7,767 for Duke and 7,765 for UNC), according to ESPN Stats & Info.
Who will take home the victory in the first matchup of the Tobacco Road rivalry this season? Below, SI's college basketball experts make their picks and predictions for Thursday night's showdown.
Saturday's loss to St. John's in New York was perhaps the most troubling manifestation of a season-long problem for Duke: It can't guard. If that's going to change in time for the Blue Devils to make a run at the program's sixth national championship, it almost certainly won't happen by Thursday night. For Duke to win this game, it will need Marvin Bagley III to feast on North Carolina's undersized front line for close-range finishes, and for fellow freshman Wendell Carter Jr. to keep the Tar Heels off the offensive glass. It also would help if senior Grayson Allen, after going 1-for-7 in 40 minutes against the Red Storm, bounced back from one of his worst games of the season to supplement freshman Gary Trent's perimeter scoring.
During ACC play, the Blue Devils have turned the ball over on a higher percentage of their possessions than all but four other teams in the conference, but North Carolina ranks near the bottom of the league in forcing giveaways, and Duke excels at extending possessions by grabbing its own misses. (Which are relatively rare, by the way; it tops the ACC in effective field goal percentage against conference competition.) Trusting the Blue Devils to get enough stops against a top-15 offense is a perilous endeavor, but they should, at a minimum, exert more effort on defense after coach Mike Krzyzewski's stern post-game criticism at Madison Square Garden.
Pick: Duke 87, North Carolina 84
North Carolina may not be an elite team, but it’s definitely an intriguing—and dangerous—one. The Tar Heels’ recent three-game skid (snapped by Saturday’s 96–65 demolition of woebegone Pitt, from which absolutely nothing can be learned) offered some instruction, as they continue to search for the right mix of secondary scoring to complement the holdover heroes of last year’s national championship squad. Luke Maye and Joel Berry have taken 43.1% of UNC’s shots from the floor (671 of 1557), splitting that load almost exactly down the middle between them. After that, there’s little telling where the baskets come from on any given night, which has been more of a stressor for fans in Chapel Hill than for opposing coaches. Against Duke’s deficient defense, that uncertainty may finally play into UNC’s hands.
Transfer guard Cameron Johnson has come into his own over the last three weeks, averaging 16.3 points in UNC’s last six games and hitting six threes in both of the Heels’ with Clemson. Senior slasher Theo Pinson nearly fended off NC State’s upset bid on his own, finishing with 22 and 15 by driving the ball at will. St. John’s, NC State and Boston College knocked off the Blue Devils with the help of some anomalous offensive displays. Expect one of those two veterans to follow suit.
Pick: North Carolina 89, Duke 85
A Duke-UNC game, like those of any heated rivalry, always contains some element of unpredictability, but this one seems especially volatile. The Blue Devils have an elite offense and a defense that has proven susceptible to upsets outside of Durham (see: Boston College, N.C. State, and St. John’s); the Tar Heels have been a confounding rollercoaster, with home losses to N.C. State (shoutout to the Wolfpack owning their state thus far) and Wofford, the latter of which came sandwiched between truly impressive wins at Tennessee and against Ohio State on a neutral floor. Honestly, if the wrong version of either of these teams shows up, I’m not sure a 15-point win either way would be all that shocking.
But, yes, even after all that cautioning against knowing what to expect from either of these teams, let alone them against one another, I do not expect that sort of outcome. Duke has had four days to stew after its embarrassment in New York; North Carolina is only a week removed from a three-game losing streak. Expect both teams to be raring to go and this one to go down to the wire. A huge road game in the sport’s top rivalry feels like a good time for Grayson Allen to get back on track, and while Trevon Duval’s struggles are a big concern, I think Duke has enough firepower to withstand Joel Berry and Luke Maye and squeak out an 83-81 win at the Dean Dome.