For all intents and purposes, North Carolina and Duke will play for Charlotte on Saturday night.
For the first time since 2012, the Tar Heels and Blue Devils will both be ranked in the top 10 when the teams play at Cameron Indoor Stadium, and the winner will have the inside track on remaining in the state for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
March Madness returns to the state after a one-year absence, and the master plan was likely to have both the Heels and Blue Devils open their tournament runs at the Hornets’ Spectrum Center.
Virginia’s run to the top spot in the league likely scuttled those plans, however. With the ACC title wrapped up with more than a week to go, the Cavaliers will have a one-seed and the conference’s preferred path through the Big Dance. That leaves just one spot in the pod for the locals.
Both the Tar Heels and Blue Devils have made strong claims to the Queen City reservations at points during the season. The Heels took five ACC losses in January and appeared to be out of the running, while Duke was cruising along, with the nation’s best player in Marvin Bagley III and a solid No. 2 spot in the conference.
Then the calendar flipped and so did both teams’ fortunes. The Heels stormed past a befuddled Duke team in the first matchup, capping three losses in four games for the Blue Devils. Making matters worse, Bagley went down with a knee injury and would miss the next 16 days.
UNC’s Theo Pinson managed to contain the much larger Bagley in the game, and the Heels appeared to be fresher and stronger at the end of the game.
Carolina went on to run its win streak to six straight, heading into Tuesday’s Senior Night game against Miami. That stretch included three wins in five days — against Duke, at NC State and against Notre Dame — and closed with road wins at Syracuse and Louisville.
Heading into the final two games of the regular season, Carolina could finish as high as No. 2 in the ACC or as low as No. 6, much of that spread depending on the outcome of the finale at Cameron.
“Well, we’ve played pretty well and have been making shots,” UNC coach Roy Williams said of the winning streak, “which has been the biggest thing we’ve been doing. Still (we’re) not as good defensively as I want us to be.”
While the Heels have been red hot, Duke appeared to right the ship. Without Bagley, the team found a defensive spark that has been missing all year. Duke held four straight opponents to below 60 points for the first time in program history and entered the final week of the season on a five-game win streak of its own.
Monday night, in its pre-UNC tuneup, the Blue Devils appeared to have the game at Virginia Tech well in hand, building a 15-point first-half lead. The Hokies stormed back, however, and knocked off the Blue Devils on a last-second shot.
Duke can finish anywhere from second to fifth in the league, depending on the UNC game, as well as the outcome of other teams, but the real question is what the loss in Blacksburg means.
Not much, according to coach Mike Krzyzewski.
“We’ve just got to get rejuvenated,” he said. “We’re a good basketball team, we didn’t play well tonight. The main thing to fix is getting rejuvenated. This isn’t something that now we’ve got this problem and we’ve got that problem. It’s part of the season. It’s a long season.”
Since the first game, much has changed with both teams. Carolina entered that game giving up 3-pointers on a record-threatening pace. While teams still put up, and make, a good number of long-range shots against them, the Heels have managed to tighten up the perimeter defense.
Meanwhile, Pinson has emerged as a scoring threat in the final month of his college career. The senior has scored 69 points in the four games since Duke, including a career-high 23 against Syracuse in the last game.
For Duke, the UNC loss and Bagley’s injury spurred Krzyzewski into looking to his bench. The Blue Devils have gone as deep as nine players in the rotation, about two more than the team has typically used in recent years. Grayson Allen has also been more aggressive about being a scoring option in Duke’s recent run, and, of course, Duke has been much tougher on defense.
As usual, there’s much at stake in Saturday night’s game. And, with tournament season looming, the outcome could again send both teams on wildly different trajectories.