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Next Up - The Tar Heels

Just as UNC has surged to a second-place tie in the ACC.

Duke v Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND, IN - JANUARY 31: Wendell Moore Jr. #0 of the Duke Blue Devils drives to the basket against Trey Wertz #2 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Purcell Pavilion on January 1, 2022 in South Bend, Indiana.
Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images
  • Date: 2/5
  • Time: 6:00
  • Venue: Dean Smith Center
  • Video: ESPN

Mike Krzyzewski has lived and worked in Durham since 1980. At one point he said that he has never been to Chapel Hill other than for a game. So if that’s still true, then he’s made exactly 41 trips to Chapel Hill. On Saturday he will make his 42nd and quite possibly final trip to Durham’s Orange County neighbor for the annual road trip to play UNC.

Don’t except framed pictures and sentimental gifts. He might get an acknowledgement over the PA but probably not. And that’s fine. It’s never been a pleasure trip. Going to UNC is all business just as it will be this time.

UNC has had an interesting season. Hubert Davis is in his first season and he has had some rocky stretches. UNC has lost to Purdue, Tennessee, which was once inconceivable, got crushed by Kentucky, nipped by Notre Dame, then destroyed by Miami and Wake Forest back-to-back.

They haven’t lost since the Wake game, having beaten Virginia Tech, BC and NC State, all soundly.

That was probably a relief for Davis who, for the first time in our memory, was a UNC coach pleading for effort and energy.

Those were three solid victories but they came against three of the weaker teams in the conference. Still, it was a good stretch and a chance for the Tar Heels to work through some issues and to build confidence, which seemed fragile at times earlier.

When Davis took the job he wanted to do two things: keep traditions and modernize the program. He’s done a reasonable job of that so far. He’s maintained a sense of what the program has always tried to be even while he’s moving towards a positionless basketball that embraces a more three-point oriented offense.

For instance, he does have two bigs in often, but Brady Manek is more likely to shoot threes than to spend a lot of time in the lane. And that’s fine because Armando Bacot has locked that role down for UNC.

Criticisms of his play at Louisville this past weekend aside, Bacot is having a stunning year. He’s averaging 16.5 ppg and is not that far off of Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe as a rebounder, although he’s not nearly as bouncy as Tshiebwe.

Manek isn’t a hugely athletic big guy but at 6-9 and 230 he’s big enough and his three point shooting is a welcome weapon.

Leaky Black, a high school teammate of Wendell Moore’s, has been somewhat erratic offensively but he’s always been a terrific and versatile defender. Sophomore guards Caleb Love and RJ Davis round out the starters.

Love has been up and down too. The 6-4 point guard is shooting 38.6 percent overall and 41.9 percent on threes. He’s been really bad from the field in his last five games and in his last two, he’s just 12 of 57 on two point shots and 12 of 35 from deep.

Davis, a high school teammate of AJ Griffin’s, hasn’t been bad in his last five games, shooting 6-12 against Wake (2-4 on threes), 3-9 against Virginia Tech (1-4), 4-9 against BC (1-5), 6-8 against State (3-4) and 6-15 against Louisville (4-8). Like Syracuse’s Joe Girard, he’s on the small side for a shooting guard but certainly capable.

Davis doesn't have the sort of depth UNC typically has and that’s worse now with Anthony Harris sitting out the rest of the season. And Dawson Garcia? He hasn’t played since the Wake Forest loss, having gone home for a family health issue.

That theoretically pushes Puff Johnson and Justin McKoy up the rotation. Against Louisville, Johnson got 10 minutes and Kerwin Walton also had 10. And McKoy?

Just one.

That means the starters played 179 out of 200 total minutes. We’re still not sure why McKoy, Walton and freshmen Dontrez Styles and D’Marco Dunn aren't really playing much but it almost has to come down to injury or simply not being ready. Not everyone is as a freshman (we would add academics but, well, you know).

Bacot is a particular challenge for Duke. He’s strong and a relentless rebounder. He’s could get Mark Williams in foul trouble. We’re pretty sure Theo John can bang with him. Thing is, both Williams and John have periodically had foul trouble and, like UNC, Duke isn’t terribly deep. Paolo Banchero can certainly defend the post but it’s not ideal.

Duke lost to UNC last season 91-83 in Chapel Hill and 91-87 in Cameron. In the first game, Love shot 6-14, hit 2-6 on threes and was 4-4 from the line for 18 points.

In Durham? He was 9-16 overall, 4-5 on threes, 3-3 from the line and had seven assists.

But last season Duke started Jeremy Roach, who was not nearly the player is this season, and DJ Steward.

Roach is 6-2. Steward is 6-1. Jordan Goldwire was (is) a superb defender but he’s 6-3.

Love is 6-4 and was able to go over and around Duke’s perimeter defenders last year. That might not be as easy now.

As we saw at Notre Dame, between Roach, who is vastly improved, Trevor Keels, 6-5 and Moore, Griffin and Joey Baker, who are all 6-6, Duke’s perimeter is a load.

And here’s the bonus.

They can play more aggressively because Williams, Banchero and Theo John are all excellent shotblockers. Banchero and John can stop you; Williams can demoralize you.

Duke wasn't particularly good on defense last year. This year? Overall?

Dramatically better.

Of course you can parse all the stats you want to in this game. It doesn’t really matter. No one can explain Freddy Lind coming off the bench as a career reserve and killing UNC in 1968. No one can explain Walter Davis hitting a 40 foot shot, or Jeff Capel either. No one can explain Dante Calabria hitting a shot while he’s falling down, any more than anyone could explain Duke’s comeback in Chapel Hill in 2012. No one could explain Duke beating #3 UNC in 1972 (well, that’s not true: Dean Smith pointed to the foul discrepancy. Duke gets all the calls, you know).

Emotion fuels this rivalry. Passion. Duke certainly comes in as the better team - UNC is unranked and Draft Kings has Duke by -3 - but the team with the better emotional response typically wins. And if Duke allows UNC to play with more energy and passion, then the Tar Heels are very likely to win.