Stakes lower but still urgent for Duke-Carolina

The 2022 Final Four combatants are both unranked for the season’s first rivalry game

RJ Davis, left, and the Tar Heels will resume their rivalry with Jeremy Roach and Duke on Saturday night in Durham. (David J. Phillip / AP Photo)

The last time Duke and North Carolina played, it was the top story in sports for an entire week. The rivalry traveled to its largest stage ever, meeting in New Orleans on April 2 in the Final Four.

The last time the two rivals met at Cameron Indoor Stadium, the site for this Saturday’s battle of the blues, it was also the top story in sports as Hall of Famer Mike Krzyzewski coached his final home game in an epic celebration of the program, spoiled by an upset win by the Tar Heels that helped spark their run to the national title game.

The stakes will not be anywhere near as high as the rivalry resumes this weekend.

For just the third time since 1960, but the third time in two years, both teams will be unranked for Saturday evening’s Duke-Carolina game at Cameron. The Tar Heels, who opened the season as the nation’s No. 1-ranked team, and Duke, who started at No. 7, both find themselves in the “others receiving votes” section of this week’s AP poll.

Carolina set a record, becoming the first preseason No. 1 to drop completely out of the poll, and they did it in just four weeks, suffering a four-game losing streak that earned the players criticism from their coach that they were soft, didn’t listen and were too focused on individual honors.

There have been a few false starts, but the Tar Heels appear to have righted the ship, winning four straight and 10 of 12 since the four-game skid.

Duke has had an opposite trajectory, opening with six wins in seven games and 10 in the first 12. Since then, the Blue Devils have been one game over .500, at 5-4, a stretch of mediocrity that dropped them from the poll.

After all that dust cleared, both teams are still having solid seasons, if not quite at their usual high levels. The Heels are 15-6, 7-3 in conference, which is good for fourth place. The Blue Devils, also 15-6, are a game behind at 6-4 in the ACC.

UNC’s run to the title game last year was led by an inside-outside attack featuring one of the league’s best big men in Armando Bacot as well as a pair of hot-shooting playmakers in Caleb Love and RJ Davis. The trio all returned this season to try to make another run, but they’ve been emblematic of the team’s struggles. Bacot has missed time with injury and hasn’t been the force many thought he would be, although he has been more dominant lately, stringing together three double-doubles, including two 20-point, 15-rebound outings, in the last four games.

Love’s shooting has been off the mark much of the year, a big factor behind UNC’s 31.8% accuracy from 3-point range, which ranks No. 288 in the nation.

Davis has surprisingly emerged as UNC’s most reliable option on offense, with nine double-digit scoring nights in the last 10 games and the highest 3-point percentage on the squad. He’s taken some hits, however, at one point joking that he felt “like I’ve been in a boxing match” after a game. In his most recent outing, a comeback win at Syracuse, he took an elbow to the face. Davis also reinjured his finger during the game, a nagging problem that affected him at the start of the year.

“He was hit in the eye,” coach Hubert Davis said. “It was swollen after the game, and he couldn’t see out of the eye. We had to make sure nothing was broken. He’ll probably still have a black eye on Wednesday (UNC’s last pre-Duke game, against Pitt).”

Davis (the player) returned to practice at the start of the week and was expected to play on Wednesday, and Saturday against Duke, barring any setbacks. The prognosis wasn’t as good for Puff Johnson, who has battled injury all year. “He’s still limited in practice,” Davis (the coach) said.

Duke also has injury concerns heading into Rivalry Week. Dariq Whitehead, who has emerged as a potential scoring leader for the team heading into the stretch run, injured his lower leg and missed the Blue Devils’ last game. He was slowed by injury early in the season and missed most of the preseason as well, which put him behind schedule as he adjusts to the college game. He seemed to find his groove in recent weeks, scoring in double figures in six of his last eight games before the injury.

“He had a really good day yesterday on the court, but he’s not quite there yet,” coach Jon Scheyer said. Whitehead was questionable for Duke’s early-week game against Pitt, as well as the Carolina game.

The Blue Devils also have another player who had his early career development slowed by a preseason injury seemingly starting to hit his stride. Dereck Lively, who battled foul trouble early in the season, has been more consistent lately and shown flashes of the skills that made him the top recruit in the freshman class. The big man has a knack for blocking shots and dunking, but he added an outside shot, as well as prowess on the offensive boards, which could help the Blue Devils matchup with Bacot in the paint.

“He’s a game-changer for us,” Scheyer said.

This will be the first Duke-Carolina game for Scheyer in his role as Duke’s head coach. Davis, who went through the same experience on the other bench last year, lost his first rivalry game then made his coaching bones by sweeping both of the end-of-year games when the stakes were highest.

So while this game may not have as much on the line as Duke and Carolina fans are used to, there’s always the chance that bigger and better things are on the horizon for both.