The North Carolina men's basketball team takes on Duke on Saturday, Feb. 6. Last season's overtime thriller in Chapel Hill proved that even when one of these teams may not be having a season on par with its usual standards, the atmosphere of the rivalry can still manifest some incredible games. Ahead of the matchup, here's what members of our sports desk predict will happen:
Jared McMasters, sports editor
In a way, the Blue Devils may have more in common with UNC than some fans realize, especially as of late. That may come across as blasphemy to you, but hear me out.
After losing Cameron Johnson, Coby White, Luke Maye, Kenny Williams and Nassir Little all in one year, it was a borderline fever dream for UNC fans to think they'd be able to replace all that talent in one season. Cole Anthony and Armando Bacot had their moments as first-years. Garrison Brooks emerged as an impressive contributor. But that mountain of losses was always going to be insurmountable, and last year's struggles materialized on the court.
Now, after a one-year delay, Duke finds itself in a similar position.
The Blue Devils lost almost 70 percent of their scoring from the 2019-20 season — namely Vernon Carey Jr., Cassius Stanley, Tre Jones and Javin DeLaurier. Alex O'Connell transferred out of the program. Joey Baker and Wendell Moore Jr. haven't made the leaps Duke fans were hoping to see.
And, like clockwork, those obstacles are taking their toll on this team in games this year.
That being said, if last year's instant classic in the Dean E. Smith Center proved anything, it's that you should throw all logic out the window when this rivalry matchup comes to town. UNC, the hotter team right now, will win. But don't be shocked when the Blue Devils rise to the occasion and take this game down to the wire.
Prediction: UNC 79, Duke 77
Jeremiah Holloway, senior writer
Basketball is a game of possessions, and UNC is figuring out ways to win close games against ACC opponents.
Since the start of 2021, UNC seems to have returned to its winning ways, beginning with a win against Notre Dame on a Leaky Black game-winner. The game wasn't pretty, and the 66 points it scored wasn't ideal for the Tar Heels, but it was enough to win. The next game was almost the same, scoring 67 points at Miami and a game-winner from Andrew Platek. It was far from a perfect performance, but it was enough to win.
Against Syracuse, UNC scored 80 points for the second time this season and won a third straight game. Despite a later loss to Florida State, the Tar Heels’ scoring has increased, hitting 80 and above twice more since then, and they managed to string together another three-game win streak before losing to Clemson on Tuesday.
The Duke Blue Devils opened conference play with three consecutive wins, but lost their next three before beating Georgia Tech to get back above .500. The Blue Devils then ran over Clemson and lost to Miami to even out at a 7-6 record. As Duke attempts to recapture momentum, the Tar Heels are already trending in the right direction ahead of their matchup.
Sophomore forward Matthew Hurt will be a player to watch out for, as he is shooting above 50 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3-point range. With the Tar Heels looking like the more complete team, however, I expect that they have enough to win another close game.
Prediction: UNC 77, Duke 74
Zachary Crain, assistant sports editor
UNC is down this year. Duke is down worse.
After the Blue Devils endured a series of long pauses in competition when they canceled their remaining out-of-conference schedule out of caution for COVID-19, they have struggled to string together consistent wins in ACC play.
After beating Georgia Tech, the Blue Devils went above the .500 mark in conference play again, and now sit at 5-4 in-conference after beating Clemson and losing to Miami. But for the Blue Devils, their problems run deeper than a string of losses.
Duke has an issue with its depth down low. The Blue Devils’ main post players are Jalen Johnson at 6-foot-9 and Jaemyn Brakefield at 6-foot-8. Johnson has been impressive on the offensive end, averaging 12 points per game, but Brakefield hasn’t reached double-digits since December.
North Carolina’s rebounding margin is plus-11, slotting it as the top rebounding Power 5 team in the nation, while Duke sits at 79th overall at plus-3. With the Tar Heels’ size and strength down low, they should out-rebound an undersized Duke team and win from the inside like they have all season.
Expect a close matchup, with Duke’s Matthew Hurt — who’s averaging 18.8 points per game — having an impressive offensive performance, but with North Carolina outperforming Duke in the paint for a win.
Prediction: UNC 73, Duke 65
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