It doesn’t matter if you call it “the toughest eight-mile rivalry in college basketball,” “The Tobacco Road Rivalry”, or “The Game”, or just simply “the greatest rivalry in sports,” the Duke and North Carolina games are the annual two-game spectacles of the college basketball season. And on Wednesday night, it is time for the cross-town rivals to duel yet again in their annual two-game regular season convergence for the 249th time.
It only takes two shades of blue to create a literal line of demarcation in the state of North Carolina. Eight miles separate Chapel Hill and Durham, and this little reunion has been known to bring out the most casual of college basketball supporters to become emotionally invested.
A dandy for everyone to witness, this year’s iteration features a star-studded lineup just like any other year. Names like Jordan, Laettner, Redick, Rivers, and Curry (Seth, of course) easily pop in the minds of fans of this historic meeting, and it is a certainty that viewers who have tuned into Duke-UNC at least once in their lives will add yet another memory to the rivalry’s picturebook filled with tantalizing game winners, heated scuffles and tight finishes.
Game one of two features quite a few household names, clearly on Duke’s side. We’ve continuously lauded over the early accomplishments of Duke’s Big 4 in Zion Williamson, RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish, and Tre Jones and for good reason. We all know they’re going to the pros and will probably put on a show complete with big Zion numbers, double-doubles from RJ and suffocating defense from Tre.
Yet, this is far from a cakewalk for the Blue Devils, as this long storied rivalry always portrays. There’s a scorer on the Tar Heels by the name of Coby White, who is, needless to say, having himself quite a season. The freshman guard is averaging over 15 points a game while accumulating a total of three rebounds and three assists per game, all while shooting 43.6 percent from the field and 38 percent from downtown. How White will fare against Tre Jones is not the only story worth tuning in for, so here are five things to watch for in Wednesday night’s first of two Duke-UNC battles.
5 Things To Look Out For Ahead Of Wednesday’s Matchup
1. Expect Duke to come out swinging early.
If there is something this fab four has shown to college basketball fans in the twenty-something games that have been played, it’s that Zion and his crew don’t mess around and start out slow. Coach K has always preached that slow sluggish starts aren’t recipes for successful basketball.
These freshmen, just like the Blue Devils of lore before them, have always bought into the heeding of their master adjustor’s word. In fact, Duke often leaves the first half with the averaged 5th highest 1st half scoring margin in the nation, only behind Gonzaga, Virginia, Tennessee and South Dakota State. If UNC can’t limit a first-half deficit of over 10 points, they are in for a long night, since Duke has the second-highest averaged 2nd half scoring margin in the country.
2. Will the Backcourt of Cameron Johnson and Coby White finally give Duke some trouble?
Up until this point, there hasn’t been a single backcourt tandem that has completely frustrated the combination of Cam Reddish, RJ Barrett, and Tre Jones on the defensive end.
At the beginning of the season, folks speculated that Clemson’s Marcquise Reed was going to make a statement in their ACC opener. He had 15 points, but Clemson lost by 19. It was supposed to be Florida State’s Terrance Mann and MJ Walker doing the damage, but it was Phil Cofer’s afternoon, while the backcourt scored a combined 11 points.
They were clearly Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome’s games to lose since they held the title of being the nation’s most multifaceted two-way guards in the nation. They went 0-2 against Duke. The job that Duke’s backcourt has done in shutting down ACC rivals’ best offensive threat at the guard position has been phenomenal all season.
Coby White and Cameron Johnson are no slouches though since Johnson and White are the two best scorers on the team and White has a scorers mentality that stretches from all levels of the court and is dangerous at finishing at the rim with both hands. Johnson is lethal with the three ball, both off the catch and off the dribble. Whether or not Duke is able to shut them down, it will be fun to watch.
3. Will Luke Maye be a factor against Zion?
Maye, the long-standing senior for the Heels, emphasizes the role of the stretch big and can do just about what you need for him to do on a nightly basis. You need a consistent wing scorer? Maye’s your guy. How about a pick and roll big that’s equally effective getting to the cup as he is popping for a mid-range jumper? Maye’s your guy. You need some beef inside to snatch those boards? You get the idea.
Though his numbers have dropped in shooting the three ball from last year, his best contribution on the season has been, far and away, his rebounding. Maye ranks second in the ACC in rebounding (9.6 per game) and has averaged more than two offensive rebounds per game. That number is going to be tested by the man who is third in rebounding in the ACC (9.2 per game), the behemothic 6-foot-7 Zion Williamson, who weighs 40 pounds heavier than the 6’8, 240-pound Tar Heel.
4. Can Duke shoot the three ball consistently?
One of the biggest problems Duke has had all year on the offensive end was shooting the three ball above a team percentage of 40 percent. While there are some outlying outings, like when RJ Barrett knocked down five straight threes en route to a 60 percent day shooting from deep, Duke hasn’t been as consistent from deep like they’ve wanted to.
That spells problems for a team that’s shooting a combined 31 percent from behind the arc and smells like money for UNC, who allows their opponents to only shoot a little under 34 percent from deep. If Duke finds themselves having trouble working it inside, UNC could go on some runs and control the tempo for a large portion of the game.
5. The curious case of Duke’s second unit.
When Zion, RJ, Tre or Cam aren’t on the floor, subs like Jordan Goldwire, Jack White, Alex O’Connell, and Marques Bolden will have their work cut out for them against UNC guards Kenny Williams, Garrison Brooks, and Nassir Little. Bolden leads his team in blocks, but Duke’s second unit’s ability to score the rock isn’t their strong suit.
Another challenge for this second unit will be how they deal with UNC’s big man off the bench Sterling Manley, who leads his team in blocks.
As always, expect Duke-UNC to get chippy, heated and entertaining. Duke has won seven of the last 11 matchups against North Carolina but they split the series last year, bolstering their all-time record against Duke to 137-111. The first game will be inside Cameron Indoor Stadium, where Duke leads the rivalry at home 54-48 and this is the 46th time the two are meeting as top 10 teams. The numbers are significant, but the memories from this storied rivalry are countless. Catch another chapter in the lengthy story of Duke-UNC on Wednesday night at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.