Duke, UNC have plenty to play for in finale

NCAA Tournament positioning is at stake after inconsistent seasons for the rivals

Coach Jon Scheyer and Duke will look to end their regular season on a high note when the Blue Devils travel to Chapel Hill to face rival UNC on Saturday. (Jacob Kupferman / AP Photo)

It will be must-see television once again on Saturday when the Tar Heels and Blue Devils close the ACC regular season against each other. However, after generations of “Clash of the Titans,” this year’s Duke-Carolina rivalry has been more “Growing Pains.”

UNC and Duke enter the game outside the AP Top 25, the second time this season that both teams have been on the outside looking in when they square off.

In year two of the Hubert Davis era, the Tar Heels have not been able to build on the success of last season’s March run, when they turned around an inconsistent season with a postseason run that produced back-to-back wins over Duke and took them into the second half of the national title game with a lead.

After returning most of the contributors from last year’s team, UNC also brought back the inconsistency that plagued it a year ago, leaving the Heels on the wrong side of the NCAA Tournament bubble as recently as a week ago. A loss at NC State, UNC’s fifth in six games, put the Tar Heels in the position of needing to win out to enter the ACC Tournament with a legitimate shot at an at-large NCAA berth.

So far, the Heels have taken care of business and, with the calendar about to flip a page, have shown signs that another March run could be brewing. UNC overcame a lackluster first half to post a come-from-behind road win over Notre Dame. The Tar Heels then posted their first Quad I win of the season, in their 10th attempt, against Virginia. Carolina then held off a Florida State rally to pick up another road win.

The difference for Carolina boils down to one simple factor — outside shots are falling. Heading into the Virginia game, UNC was shooting .299 on 3-point attempts this season, which ranked the Tar Heels in the bottom 25 nationally in accuracy. Over the past week, however, the Heels have knocked down 24 of 51 from long range for a .471 percentage.

UNC’s improved 3-point shooting should open up more space in the paint for big man Armando Bacot. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

“Prior to these last three games, and I don’t know where we are now, but I mean, statistically, we were the worst 3-point shooting team in ACC,” said Davis. “So teams have been packing in and having multiple guys in the lane and making us shoot the ball from the outside at times. I’ve said before, at the end of the day, we’re gonna have to knock down some perimeter jump shots. And over the last couple games, we’ve been able to do that.”

The shooting helped UNC overcome a one-point outing from Armando Bacot at Florida State. If UNC keeps hitting outside shots, it could open things back up for the big man.

Duke hasn’t had the wild up-and-down swings that have highlighted UNC’s season, but the Blue Devils have still struggled with consistency in coach Jon Scheyer’s first campaign.

Scheyer’s rookie year was slowed at the beginning with injuries to Dariq Whitehead and Dereck Lively, two of the top freshmen in the nation. Both players missed time at the start of the season and took longer than expected to find their sea legs after missing preseason practice time.

The team seems to have found its stride down the stretch, however. Duke entered this week, and a Tuesday game against NC State that occurred after press time, on a four-game winning streak, which matched the season’s longest for the Blue Devils.

“Throughout the year, whether it was injury, whether it was adversity with a loss or a setback, we just kept saying ‘stick together, stick together, let’s be our best when it really matters,’” Scheyer said. “I give these guys a lot of credit because they haven’t pointed the finger and they continue to work. Each of them has gotten better. We spend a lot of time in practice working on individual work. Individual player development, which I think you can see the growth that our guys have made throughout the course of the season and, of course, understanding who you are playing with and how to play to each other’s strengths.”

Lively and Whitehead still aren’t the dominant forces many expected when Duke signed the nation’s best recruiting class, but Lively has become a defensive force who is challenging school freshman records for blocked shots. Whitehead has developed into one of the best outside shooting options for the Blue Devils. The rest of the freshman class has also shown progress, with Kyle Filipowski leading the team in scoring and rebounding on his way to a likely ACC Rookie of the Year award. Mark Mitchell has shaken off a midseason shooting slump in recent games, and guard Tyrese Proctor has thrived leading the team, freeing up veteran Jeremy Roach to seek his shot.

Both teams are aware of just how critical the rivalry rematch game can be. UNC’s win over Duke in Coach K’s final home game likely triggered the Tar Heels’ March run. The regular season finale could help erase the frustration of an up-and-down season for whichever team comes out with the victory.