Normally we see Duke and UNC as a Top Ten or, at worst, at Top 15 matchup and have since at least the mid-80s.
It was that way between 1978 and 1980 under Bill Foster and the latter half of the 1960s as well.
You have to go a long ways back to find a time when neither team was ranked.
This time of course only Duke is, at #7. UNC has had a tough year and is currently in 14th place in the ACC at 10-12 and 3-8.
The Tar Heels have had serious injuries and lost star freshman Cole Anthony for some time of course and just got him back for the last two games.
The Heels still lost them both, to Boston College at home and to FSU on the road. It’s worth noting, as Duke learned, that Boston College is improving and tougher than their record would indicate, and that Florida State is no easy out.
UNC did blow the end of the BC game but they hung with the most athletic team in the conference at Tallahassee.
And there is no denying the emotional power of this game nor of the mischief of being unranked and knocking off Duke. It won’t change their season much but would be excellent for morale.
It’s the same emotion Duke had in 1972 when Duke beat a vastly superior UNC or when Jeff Capel hit his legendary runner in 1995 to put the Cameron game into double overtime.
You could pick any number of games really and the rankings and prospects never much matter. We know the great ones by player’s names. Art Heyman. Robby West. Gene Banks. Dante Calabria. Eric Montross. Capel. Chris Duhon.
The names change, the rankings go up and down, but the emotion remains the same and will in this one.
So while you might think that Duke is going to run UNC out of the gym, we wouldn’t bet on that. We’d bet on emotion keeping the game close and then execution down the stretch will determine the winner.
People are going to focus on Duke’s talent, specifically Vernon Carey, who is a load. Cassius Stanley’s physical gifts are spectacular and he is getting more and more attention from opponents, the press and the NBA.
For UNC, the attention will go to big men Garrison Brooks and Armando Bacot and of course Anthony. Brooks has been brilliant during UNC’s struggles and especially so when Anthony was out (not so much since he’s been back though: in the last three games before Anthony’s return, Brooks averaged 22.3 points and in the last two games, just 7.5).
Duke will have a tough time guarding both big men much less keeping them off the offensive boards. Carey can hold his own but not against both at the same time. Matthew Hurt is not as powerful as the foul-prone Bacot which will make things more difficult. Jack White and Javin DeLaurier may prove critical in this one.
As far as Anthony goes, that gets into the quiet core of Duke’s defense. Tre Jones will be his primary defender. If he shuts down Anthony, Duke’s odds of winning go up sharply.
Obviously he’ll get help from Jordan Goldwire and Wendell Moore.
Brandon Robinson will not play in this game so that means UNC will need a lot from Moore’s old high school teammate Leaky Black. He’ll help with the ball handling and will be asked to score more than he usually does.
Presumably Andrew Platek will start for Robinson. That demonstrates a surprising historic reversal: traditionally Roy Williams has (and uses) a much deeper rotation than Duke’s Coach K.
Without Robinson, his first bench player is likely to be Justin Pierce, a grad student transfer from William & Mary. Or it might be freshman Jeremiah Francis, but he only played three minutes in UNC’s losses to BC and FSU.
Christian Keeling is a grad student transfer from Charleston Southern who will also play.
The ugly truth though is that injuries have decimated UNC’s depth and that’s a problem in this game. Carey has to be dealt with but if Hurt goes outside, then it’s hard to double-team Carey. And if Bacot gets into foul trouble, as he tends to do, that’s a problem as well.
Viewed dispassionately, Duke should roll.
You can’t view this game dispassionately though. There’s simply too much passion.
Someone will step up for UNC and be a surprise. And while Duke is the better team - clearly - it will have to execute down the stretch to win this one.
In fact, as we said earlier, we expect this one will go down to the last few minutes before one team pulls slightly ahead. And if it does come down to that, then it’s whoever executes best at the end. Duke is clearly better but the Blue Devils rely heavily on several freshmen who have not yet been in that crucible and we don’t yet know how they will respond.
In a perfect world, Duke will control Cole, limit Brooks and get Bacot in foul trouble. That would make life very difficult for the Tar Heels.
If UNC is close at the end, however, the Tar Heels will have the emotional advantage. And in this rivalry, that’s very critical.